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Daniel Webster, by Chester Harding

Daniel Webster, 1830,  Oil on canvas, 94 x 58 in.1832 by Chester Harding.

Chester Harding, Conway, Massachusetts 1792-1866 Boston, Massachusetts. Daniel Webster, 1830, 1848-49. Oil on canvas, 94 x 58 in. Inscribed lower right: C. Harding 1849. Gift of several subscribers, 1832.

Given Daniel Webster’s stature and reputation, it is perfectly reasonable to expect that an institution such as the Boston Athenæum would own multiple portraits of him, as it certainly does.[1] In the collection are three sculptures – a marble bust by John Frazee (1834), another marble by Hiram Powers (1836), and a plaster bust by Shobal Clevenger (1838)—as well as a large collection of etchings and engravings that depict Webster in various places, poses, and situations, including death. The most impressive portrait of Webster at the Athenæum, however—or anywhere else, for that matter—is a life-size, full-length painting of him by one of the leading American portrait-painters of the day, Chester Harding.

As stated elsewhere in this catalogue, Harding gained much of his artistic training and experience by traveling, first throughout the United States and then, in 1823, to England, which Gilbert Stuart had advised him to visit. Despite his obscurity and provincial roots, Harding attracted portrait commissions from a fashionable clientele in England, partially through the influence of his newfound British mentor, the painter Sir Thomas Lawrence. After a remarkably successful stay abroad, Harding returned to Boston in the fall of 1826. While he soon settled his family in Springfield, Massachusetts, he kept a separate residence and studio in Boston, where he worked during most winters for the rest of his life.[2]

Harding’s affable personality, coupled with his life-long ability to be in the right place at the right time, allowed him to maintain in America the success he had known in England. This was certainly made easier following the death in 1828 of his old friend Stuart, who had been the formidable, dominating figure in American portraiture for many years. Stuart’s death left the field open for Harding, who already had a national reputation and was Stuart’s natural successor, at least in New England. Harding enhanced his local popularity and renown by using his Boston studio not only for his own work, but also as a venue for the exhibition and auction of art in general. It became an art center in the city and Harding benefited accordingly. By 1830, he was the portraitist of choice for many Bostonians, including the Trustees of the Boston Athenæum. In fact, in the years around 1830, the Athenæum acquired by commission or subscription three major portraits by Chester Harding.

The earliest of these—Harding’s portrait of the author Hannah Adams—is comparatively the simplest of the three in terms of size and style and also the one whose subject perhaps had the closest direct affiliation with the institution (see cat. no. 65). The Athenæum’s other two portraits by Harding—of Chief Justice John Marshall (see cat. no. 69) and of lawyer, orator, and senator Daniel Webster (1782-1852) respectively—have long been treated as pendants, although they were not conceived as such. Their similar size and matching frames (by nineteenth-century Boston framer John Doggett) made them a natural pairing, but – more importantly – they are both American classics in the tradition of Grand Manner portraiture: full-length, life-size images of famous people dressed in appropriate costumes, standing in grand (usually imaginary) settings, and accompanied by objects that suggest their trades, interests, and contributions to civilization. Together, these two portraits present the genre at its grandest.

The Athenæum’s portrait of Webster began with an attempt, possibly by the working-class citizens of Boston, to raise a subscription to commission a full-length image of him for public display.[3] Apparently overly confident, Harding painted the portrait before the fund was fully subscribed; when the subscription failed, he had little recourse but to attempt to sell it. He sent it to the Athenæum’s annual exhibition of 1831, after which it was purchased by a group of subscribers and given to the institution, almost certainly to Harding’s relief.

In the Grand Manner tradition, Harding shows Webster standing in an impressive interior with the requisite hanging drapery in the background, an element of the genre that enhances the image’s theatricality. Since Webster was known for his oratorical talents, this setting is especially appropriate here; indeed, in his portrait of Webster, Harding suggests, through posture and gesture, that the Senator is in the act of speaking. Meanwhile, as a way of making a natural link to the greatness of the recent American past, Harding opens the composition to Webster’s right where, in the background, we see the British sculptor Francis Chantrey’s famous marble sculpture of George Washington, which had been unveiled in 1826 in the Massachusetts State House, where it remains. By making the sculpture an important element of the portrait, Harding not only equates Webster’s talents and contributions to those of Washington, but he also links the senator directly to his home state by giving him a familiar and identifiable venue for his oration.[4] The levels of fame, power, and statesmanship that are discernable in the portrait eventually made it an appropriate mate to Harding’s great likeness of Marshall. At the same time, it went a long way towards fulfilling that part of the Athenæum’s mission which sought to create an environment appropriate to scholarly inquiry and discussion.[5]

David B. Dearinger from, Stanley Ellis Cushing and David B. Dearinger, eds., Acquired Tastes: 200 Years of Collecting for the Boston Athenæum (2006): 220-222. Copyright © The Boston Athenæum.

[1]For an excellent survey of portraits of Daniel Webster by various artists see National Portrait Gallery, Washington, D.C.: James Barber and Frederick Voss, The Godlike Black Dan: A Selection of Portraits from Life in Commemoration of the Two Hundredth Anniversary of the Birth of Daniel Webster (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1982). A summary of Harding’s portraits of Webster, including the Athenæum’s, is given in Leah Lipton, A Truthful Likeness: Chester Harding and His Portraits (Washington, D.C.: The National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, 1985), 114-116. The standard biography of Webster is Robert V. Remini, Daniel Webster: The Man and His Time (New York and London: W. W. Norton & Company, 1997). Webster began his long term in the United States Congress in 1813 as a member of the House of Representatives from Massachusetts. In 1827, the year before Harding painted his Athenæum portrait, he was elected to the U. S. Senate from that state. By the late 1810s, Webster was famous in Boston not only for his legal prowess, but also as a member of the American Antiquarian Society, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the Boston Athenæum. He was “one of the city’s preeminent intellectual and cultural leaders” (Remini, 145).

[2]Biographical facts for Harding have been taken from Lipton. Also see Harding’s autobiography, My Egotistigraphy (Cambridge: John Wilson and Son, 1866), which was edited and reissued by his daughter Margaret E. White as A Sketch of Chester Harding, Artist: Drawn by His Own Hand (Boston and New York, 1929; reprinted New York: Kennedy Galleries, Inc., and Da Capo Press, 1970).

[3]Barber and Voss, 26. In a letter to the Athenæum, Harding described the subscribers simply as “some of Mr. Webster’s personal friends” (Chester Harding to Thomas G. Cary, Boston Athenæum, May 7, 1851, BA Letter Book 16). Harding probably first met Webster in Washington, D.C., shortly after his return from England in 1826. His anecdotal memories of Webster are in his My Egotistigraphy (166-168).

[4]Writing in 1851, Harding stated his own belief that it was “the best full-length I have ever painted” (Harding to Cary, May 7, 1851).

[5]According to Barber and Voss (26), Harding did not begin painting his full-length portrait of Webster in 1828, as has been often published, but in 1830. After it was severely damaged by unrecorded means at the Athenæum in 1848, Harding evidently heavily repainted it. The extent of that repainting is not specifically known—Harding himself stated that he repainted everything “with the exception of a part of the back-ground” (Webster to Cary, May 7, 1851)—making it difficult to know exactly when Harding arrived at the composition and iconography that we see today. It is known that he heavily reworked Webster’s head, but it seems possible that he actually repainted the entire image. Unfortunately, no engravings were made of the painting until after this reworking and we may never fully comprehend its original appearance with any certainty.