The question was, could fine art conservators undo the damage time had wrought on Henry Clay in the U.S. Senate? It was a daunting challenge.
The artist died in 1867, one year after completing Henry Clay in the U.S. Senate, and his widow installed the portrait in a memorial art gallery in their home town of Le Roy, New York. When the gallery closed decades later, the painting was sold for just $60 to a local school. There, students tossed balls at it during study hall, as evidenced by the concentric rings of damage etching the surface.
In 1955 the painting and its frame were placed in storage at the Le Roy Historical Society. Too large to be kept upright, the painting was stored on its side, idicated by the direction of streaks and stains on the canvas.
Fragile, flaking paint, a brittle, torn, wrinkled canvas, and a surface clouded by dirt, stains, and multiple layers of old restoration paint seriously compromised the appearance and structural integrity of the painting. In fact, the entire work suffered the ravages of time. The frame, carved of rare, old-growth Honduras mahogany, needed cleaning, repair to its gilded interliner, and replacement of broken and chipped parts.
A two year conservation effort began, with impressive results. After months studying and analyzing the unique problems of Henry Clay in the U.S. Senate, conservators customized techniques for repairing the extensive damage. The final act in this dramatic restoration was to reunite the painting and its frame, separated in storage for nearly half a century.
Henry Clay in the U.S. Senate now hangs in the East Brumidi Stairway of the U.S. Capitol.