When artist Constantino Brumidi designed the walls of the Senate Reception Room in the mid-19th century, he planned five decorative plaster panels, each to contain portraits of “illustrious men.” Brumidi never completed the mural decorations for the room, and the ovals remained blank. In 1955, by resolution of the U.S. Senate, a committee was created to choose five outstanding former senators whose likenesses would fill the ovals. Senator John F. Kennedy of Massachusetts chaired the committee as it sought counsel from historians, political scientists, and senators. From more than 60 nominees, the committee unanimously selected three 19th-century senators: Henry Clay of Kentucky, Daniel Webster of Massachusetts, and John C. Calhoun of South Carolina. It also chose two 20th-century senators, Robert M. La Follette, Sr.
, of Wisconsin and Robert A. Taft, Sr., of Ohio. The committee reported its recommendations to the full Senate in May 1957, and later that year a commission was established to oversee the creation of the portraits. A formal unveiling of the completed works was held on March 12, 1959.
Maryland artist Arthur Conrad, a graduate of the Yale School of Fine Arts, based his painting of John C. Calhoun on a life portrait by George P.A. Healy in the collection of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond. Healy created the portrait as a preparatory study for a larger and later painting, Webster’s Reply to Hayne. In both of Healy’s works, Calhoun is shown seated in the vice president’s chair in the Senate Chamber. It was from this seat that Calhoun presided in 1830 during the famous Webster-Hayne debate over the nullification doctrine.
Conrad began his portrait of Calhoun in his studio and completed the work after it was installed in the Senate Reception Room. He later executed a replica of the Senate’s portrait for the county courthouse in Abbeville, South Carolina.