Washington became Congress’s home in 1800. In the Capitol’s first 30 years, more than 1,200 Americans entered its doors as elected Members. Itinerant politicians arrived from all over the young nation, bringing viewpoints and predilections from their social strata, economic and educational backgrounds, and levels of ambition.
A glimpse at portraits of four early American lawmakers, all from the Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives, frames a view of the widely varied perspectives and backgrounds of the first generations of Congress, all through the kinds of art they embraced.
Representative John McKee of Alabama was still in his 20s when he sat for this miniature portrait in 1799, likely in Philadelphia, where Congress met prior to 1800. Born into an established family in Virginia, McKee counted several politicians in the family. He eventually moved west and represented an Alabama district in the House in the 1820s. The artist, British-born Robert Field, was favored by the elite of the new nation and McKee was precisely the sort of client Field’s portraiture appealed to. The artist developed his delicate style at the Royal Academy of Arts in London and it found favor with sophisticates Field encountered when he arrived in America in 1794. Following the federal capital from Philadelphia to Washington in 1800, Field clearly saw the seat of government as a steady source of commissions.
Portrait miniatures such as this one were popular luxury goods in the new Republic. One friend recorded in his journal that “Mr. Field executes capital large miniatures of the President [Washington] for fifty dollars each, without the framing.” Small enough to fit in the palm of a hand, they were both art and jewelry, designed to adorn both a home and a homeowner. Patrons who chose a miniature, an object associated with the British royal court, by Field acquired a distinguished gloss as well as an up-to-date sense of importance. Field’s style additionally offered an association with the most sophisticated Romantic style of portraiture. In the case of the McKee miniature, Field has presented his subject in a style that is confident and dashing. The vigor of Field’s composition and modelling were among the best in America.
Jacob Eichholtz’s small painting of Representative Isaac Darlington is one of more than 850 portraits he made during his career. Darlington wears a yellow waistcoat, bright brass buttons, and a tidy pigtail for his portrait, and he looks much like others who commissioned Eichholtz. The artist’s strongly delineated profiles and bright colors appealed to his fellow citizens of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, where he ran a coppersmith shop. Customers also appreciated his prices. The savvy businessman sold portraits, complete with frame, for the same price as a lantern, a copper teakettle, or a painted shop sign.
Eichholtz’s work from the early 1800s, when he executed his image of Darlington, reflects the approach of the generation of early American artists who did not train in Europe. They solidified the national tradition of the untutored, or craftsman, painter. Similarly, Darlington was also informally trained in his varied endeavors. His formal schooling ended when he was fifteen. A scant five years later, Darlington became a lawyer after studying in a local law office and pursued a long career as a statesman and attorney, representing a Pennsylvania district from 1817 to 1819 in the House.
The Darlington portrait illustrates two qualities that were immensely popular for portraiture in bustling inland cities like Lancaster. To begin with, English and American artists regularly used oval fields for portraits. The shape instantly lent a fashionable air to Eichholtz’s works, even though they were offered up in the same shop where one could have a humble pot mended. Depicting the subject in profile was another widespread practice in American portraiture. Profile images tended to be small and therefore affordable for a striving middle-class American but large enough to signal the owner’s prosperity. For Eichholtz, an artist without formal training, profiles were a relatively easy form to master, simpler than a frontal view’s recession into space. The artist could even begin by tracing the sitter’s silhouette, as the most famous practitioner of the era, Charles B. J. Févret de Saint-Mémin, did in the hundreds of portraits he made up and down the Eastern seaboard. Saint-Mémin’s popularity with the elite classes, along with the portrait engravings that expanded his reach into the interior of the nation, cemented the silhouette as legitimate artistic practice rather than a scientific endeavor or amateur’s hobby.
One of the first Representatives referred to as “Father of the House,” Thomas Newton Jr. of Virginia embodied seriousness and purpose in his portrait. His distinguished congressional career was of such length that he was given the title, along with the role of swearing-in the Speaker of the House. Both measures became honors that accrued to the individual with the longest continual service. The unknown artist of this portrait captured Newton in his 40s, the scion of a prominent family and one of the most respected Members of the House. He wears the same high-collared style of jacket and neck stock that he wore in an 1806 portrait by the silhouettist Saint-Mémin. His hair, however, has changed from a powdered wig and pigtail in the earlier profile to a close cropped and brushed forward hairstyle influenced by ancient Roman images. Newton represented the large port city of Norfolk and followed trans-Atlantic trade and politics closely, so it is no surprise that his image kept up with the times. Newton’s hair and sideburns mark him as a forward-thinking and cosmopolitan man, sporting up-to-date European fashion. The artist’s choice of a three-quarters view rather than a silhouette profile also signals a familiarity with the latest continental artistic styles.
The portraits of McKee, Darlington, and Newton present the sitters as men of consequence and probity. Another early Representative, Pennsylvanian George Kremer, is depicted in a less flattering light. The anonymous artist who created an image that veers toward caricature, was likely familiar with disparaging published accounts of Kremer. One newspaper noted that his speeches were such that “he is sometimes called George Screamer,” while another described an “awkward, coarse looking Pennsylvania farmer.”
In fact, Kremer was a lawyer and merchant, easily recognized in the House Chamber by his leopard-skin coat. This print, however, traffics in the stereotype of the country bumpkin, well known in America by the 1820s, when Kremer came to Congress. The artist uses several tropes that characterized a rural backbencher. Kremer’s figure is overwhelmed by a giant jacket and an enveloping bell-shaped top hat, both of which were popular with the urban fashionable set. The enormous clothing intends to make Kremer seem ill-fitted for the role of public official, and perhaps also alludes to his spotted coat’s notoriety. A commentator’s penciled-in additions make the print even more satirical. A bottle of liquor rests at Kremer’s elbow and the moniker “George Kremer Esq, of Pa, ‘the people’s man’!” mocks him on multiple counts. The scribbler seems to consider Kremer unworthy of the office of legislator and the title of Esquire, lacking the ability to champion the common man.
Four very different portraits echo the wide span of people who came to Congress in its early decades. From its very beginnings, Congress was a gathering of public-spirited Americans with varied ideas of what public spirit demanded of the nation. Each brought to the Congress specific cultural experiences and expectations. Their portraits reveal not just their appearance, but also the backgrounds—from sophisticated to self-taught, from cosmopolitan to rural—that they brought to their public work in the House.
Sources: Eastport Sentinel (Eastport, ME), 26 February 1825; Carrie Rebora Barratt and Lore Zabar, American Portrait Miniatures in the Metropolitan Museum of Art (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010); Rebecca J. Beal, Jacob Eichholtz, 1776-1842, Portrait Painter of Pennsylvania (Philadelphia: Historical Society of Pennsylvania, 1969); Wendy Bellion, Citizen Spectator: Art, Illusion, & Visual Perception in Early National America (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2011); Cynthia D. Earman, “Messing Around: Entertaining and Accommodating Congress, 1800-1830,” in Establishing Congress: The Removal to Washington, D.C., and the Election of 1800, Kenneth R. Bowling and Donald R. Kennon, eds. (Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 2005); Robin Jaffee Frank, Love and Loss: American Portrait and Mourning Miniatures (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2000); John Smith Futhey, History of Chester County Pennsylvania (Evansville, IN: Unigraphic, 1978); Harry Piers, Robert Field (New York: Frederic Fairchild Sherman, 1927); Thomas R. Ryan, ed., The Worlds of Jacob Eichholtz: Portrait Painter of the Early Republic (Lancaster, PA: Lancaster County Historical Society, 2003); Joseph Addison Waddell, Annals of Augusta County, Virginia, from 1726 to 1871 (Staunton, VA: C. Russell Caldwell, 1902).Follow @USHouseHistory