Speaker Portrait Collection
The Speaker’s Lobby hosts a significant gathering of portraits as well as people. The House of Representatives Speaker Portrait Collection is a vital visual record of House history. As noted in the bronze plaque hung in the lobby, the collection was conceived as a “tribute to their worth to the nation.” A portrait of the first Speaker of the House, Frederick Muhlenberg of Pennsylvania anchors the display, with portraits in a range of styles lining the lobby in all directions, from the post-modern realist look of Thomas "Tip" O'Neill's portrait by Robert Vickery to American Impressionist Edmund Tarbell's depiction of Frederick Huntington Gillett.
Starting the Collection
The collection began informally, with artist Giuseppe Fagnani’s 1852 donation of his portrait of Speaker Henry Clay. This initial gift was followed by more portraits, including the 1888 “Bay State Day” donation of three portraits of Speakers hailing from Massachusetts— Theodore Sedgwick, Joseph Varnum and Nathaniel Banks. Banks was the first Speaker to sit for his own House portrait—though Robert Vonnah, the artist, was asked to shave 20 years off his appearance to better represent his looks at the time of his Speakership. In 1891, supporters of Thomas Brackett Reed raised funds to commission John Singer Sargent, the most prominent American portrait artist of the day, to immortalize the Speaker. Reed’s successor and rival, Charles Crisp, was painted by Robert Hinckley, with his portrait joining his fellow leaders in 1894.
The precedent for living Speakers to have portraits made for the Capitol was fully set by the time the House mandated that it must acquire an oil portrait of every Speaker “of whom no acceptable portrait was in possession of the House” in 1910. Posthumous works were commissioned to commemorate the missing Speakers, and subsequent Speakers followed the lead of Reed and Crisp, choosing their artists and posing for their portraits. The resulting collection hangs in the Speaker’s Lobby and adjoining stairwells.