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Historical Highlights

Bay State Day in the House of Representatives

January 19, 1888
Bay State Day in the House of Representatives Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives
About this object
With a total of 22 years of service in the U.S. Congress, Joseph Varnum of Massachusetts served as both Speaker of the House and President pro tempore of the Senate.
On this date, the state of Massachusetts presented, with much fanfare, portraits of three former Speakers of the House, transforming the House Chamber into a veritable picture gallery. The three large paintings stood against the Speaker’s rostrum, commemorating Massachusetts Representatives Theodore Sedgwick, Joseph Varnum, and Nathaniel Banks, and were featured alongside the portrait of Speaker Robert Winthrop, which had first been presented in 1882, and was brought out again having been the inspiration for Massachusetts to commission the other three. “Bay State Day” was marked a great success, according to the Boston Daily Advertiser, with speeches that “made the House cheer to the echo—it was a scene to which full ranks of members gave their closest attention, and upon which crowded galleries looked down in rapt interest and silence.” Massachusetts was not the first state to donate Speaker portraits to the House, but it took the prize for sheer number. For some time there had been a slow effort to replace decaying and amateurish earlier images that were, in the words of Architect of the Capitol Edward Clark, “quite beneath criticism.” The first official Speaker portrait was that of Henry Clay, donated in 1852. In the decades that followed, the House slowly sought to locate appropriately stately images of all the Speakers. In Massachusetts’ case, the state legislature engaged Boston artist Edgar Parker to paint a copy of the Gilbert Stuart portrait of Theodore Sedgwick. Joseph Varnum’s portrait was purchased from the sitter’s descendants. Charles Elliott had painted it in the 1850s, and the family had always intended it for the Capitol. R.W. Vonnoh was commissioned to create the image of Nathaniel Banks. Banks, still living, sat for his portrait, the first Speaker to do so. The artist shaved 30 years off Banks’s looks, to reflect his appearance when he was Speaker.

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