Newspapers called it “the battle of the portraits.” As many as 16 artists entered the fray of the late Speaker Henry Rainey’s official portrait commission, a tradition in the House of Representatives. Rainey died while serving as Speaker in 1934, at the height of the Great Depression, when the $2,500 commission was more prized than ever. It took two years, a House committee, and some well-targeted insults to resolve the matter.
The beleaguered Representative at the center of the fight was Speaker Rainey’s fellow Illinois Representative Kent Keller. As Chairman of the House Library Committee acquiring the portrait fell to him. Keller was a Rainey fan from way back. “My, my, what a splendid figure of a man,” Keller recalled. He had ample chance to admire Rainey’s famously statesmanlike appearance as portraits began to arrive at the committee offices. Soon the trickle was a deluge, and Raineys stacked up in the hearing room on the fifth floor of the Longworth House Office Building.
Some artists claimed to have the official commission in hand. Others were simply hopeful that their works would find favor with the committee. First across the finish line was portraitist Edwin Child. Hot on Child’s heels came Boris Gordon, whose painting of Speaker Champ Clark was already hanging in the Speaker’s Lobby. By February 1935, Nicholas Brewer and Howard Chandler Christy had joined the party. Brewer was an Arkansas landscape painter, but Christy had congressional credentials: He had painted works for the congressional celebration of Washington’s 200th birthday in 1932.
As 1935 wore on, poor Chairman Keller did not seem to know how to handle the deluge of Raineys, or even how to make the final choice. First, he intimated to reporters that the Speaker’s widow, Ella Rainey, had been so distraught and flustered that she granted the commission to every inquiring artist, not wanting to hurt anyone’s feelings. Next, he tried to pass the decision off to Representatives Caroline O’Day, a former artist, and Isabella Greenway, whom he termed “an artist all the way through her nature.” O’Day and Greenway declined the honor. Next, he attempted to round up nationally known art critics and artists to advise. He even waffled as to what age the Speaker should appear to be in his portrait.
Meanwhile, the portraits kept coming. Art students, amateur painters, and noted portraitists—Hans Schlereth, Paul Trebilcock, and Lloyd Embry among them—piled on. In January 1936, Mrs. J. W. Crabtree of 1304 Euclid Street NW, delivered the 16th and final portrait in contention for the commission. Keller stalled for months as he tried to find a way to mollify all the artists whose work crammed the committee room. “The lucky contestant will receive the $2,500,” he offered limply, “and the others will have had the experience.”
Finally, fellow Representatives had had enough. It was June 20, 1936, the last day of the 74th Congress. Rainey had been dead almost two years. Keller’s to-do list kept getting longer: Rainey’s successor, Speaker Joseph Byrns of Texas, died that month, and William Bankhead of Alabama took up the gavel. Now three Speakers were without portraits. Scott Lucas, elected to fill Rainey’s Illinois seat, marched down the aisle of the House Chamber to call Keller’s delay “a shame and a disgrace.” “Why all of this supine indolence?” he barked. “Can it be that the gentleman from Illinois dislikes to give up his private art gallery?”
Chastened by the criticism, Keller convened his committee that same day and the panel chose Howard Chandler Christy’s work. It was the largest of the entries, and Christy was the best-known artist. He went on to immortalize other Members of the House, including Speaker Bankhead. Rainey’s colleagues deemed it an excellent likeness, although a few noted “that it has too much color in the cheeks.”
And what became of all the Raineys? Edwin Child’s version was donated to Amherst College. Hans Schlereth’s went to the Illinois State Capitol. Some found their way to other Prairie State institutions and homes. But the winning version did not travel at all. It was installed in the Speaker’s Lobby and remains there today, along with the portraits of dozens of Speakers before and after Rainey, a vital visual record of House history.
Sources: Congressional Record, 74th Cong., 2nd sess. (20 June 1936): 10567; Supplemental Estimate of Appropriation, 74th Cong., 1st Sess., H. Doc. 151; Robert Waller, Rainey of Illinois: A Political Biography (Champaign-Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1977); Time Magazine, 28 October 1935; (Columbia, SC) State, 16 March 1937; Detroit Times, 13 July 1934; Houston Chronicle, 23 January 1935; Kansas City Star, 22 July 1935; Washington Post, 11 February 1935; Washington Evening Star, 26 January 1936.Follow @USHouseHistory