A Capitol moment: A painting with Le Roy origins was visible during Capitol rioting | Top Story
LE ROY – Last week, as tear gas spreading and the chaos ravaged Capital Hill, some Le Roy residents watched with the painted eyes of Henry Clay.
“When we saw these pictures in the Brumidi corridors, we all thought the same thing,” said Le Roy historian Lynne Belluscio. “We were there and it was like seeing what happened through Henry Clay. It was really bizarre. “
A painting by Henry Clay was part of the Le Roy Historical Society for more than 60 years before it was restored and donated to the U.S. Senate, where it was displayed at the Capitol in 2009.
Belluscio said she saw a video of rioters storming up a Brumidi staircase.
“The bronze railings are unique. I also knew there were four Brumidi stairs in the Capitol. Two on the side of the house and two on the side of the Senate, ”she said. “The stairs are the access to both chambers. I had spoken to a few other people who had watched the videos and we knew the rioters were in some of the stairwells. We just didn’t know which ones. “
The damage on Capitol Hill largely avoided the artwork – most of the damage was done to hallways, offices, and doors targeting where the Senate legislature had been.
Henry Clay was safe, although he was noticeably visible in photos and videos during the riot.
“It had survived from 1862. Much effort was put into salvaging it in 2007. It took two years to restore it and then it was hard to think it could have been damaged in an instant,” said Belluscio. “The people of Le Roy had entrusted this masterpiece to the Capitol and the people of the United States, and it was hard to believe that this could happen, just as it was hard to believe that we were watching the destruction of the seat of our democracy. It was very personal. “
An obvious question: how did a Le Roy painting get into the Capitol?
The painting was created in the 19th century by Phineas Staunton, a Middlebury native husband of one of the founders of Ingham University.
Staunton entered a competition held by the state of Kentucky to honor the influential politician. It was one of two paintings submitted, but was rejected.
Belluscio said the story is always that there are too many northern politicians in the background. It was brought back to Staunton and hung at the Ingham University Art Conservatory.
When the university building was demolished years later, the painting sold for $ 60. Its buyer was at Le Roy’s former Union Free School, where it hung in the old auditorium until the new auditorium in Trigon Park was built. The painting was given to the Le Roy Historical Society and stored.
For many years the painting sat in the academic building, now the Jell-O-Galerie, languishing in the dark with the only light provided by a single light bulb on the ceiling powered by a long extension cord from Le Roy House .
When Belluscio became director of the historical society, she had James Hamm of the Buffalo Art Discussion Department prioritize the art collection.
Hamm said the painting was worth saving, but they couldn’t do much with it other than put a sheet of plastic over it.
Finally, Henry Clay – along with parts of his picture frame – was taken to the back room in the Jell-O gallery of today’s library.
There he was, and Belluscio, the museum curator, met an Ashland, Kentucky official, where Clay was from. She spoke to her staff a couple of times about Ashland going to take it, but Le Roy would have to take it there and Ashland couldn’t promise to restore it or display it.
A U-Haul would have to be rented to deliver the painting to Kentucky, and Belluscio said that if there was any paint left by the time it got there, they would be lucky with all the bumps on the road.
Supporting the painting while it was in transit would be very complicated so the transfer was not followed up.
“In the meantime, Annette Peck, whose husband was a descendant of Phineas Staunton, began writing to me,” wrote Belluscio in a magazine article entitled “My Memories of Henry Clay”.
“She was trying to compile an inventory of Staunton’s paintings and wanted to photograph as many paintings as possible,” said Belluscio.
When Peck arrived at Le Roy, he began an in-depth survey and researched who the men in the background of the clay painting were. She was looking at photos of senators in Washington who were Clay’s contemporaries.
In 2000, when the museum’s back room was being converted into the library, Clay moved again – this time to the basement – before moving again while the building’s basement received a new cement floor and structural beams.
When plans were made for the new transportation exhibition in the museum’s basement, a special room was designed to hold clay and his frame for the rest of his life, never to see the light of day again.
That was until Amy called Elizabeth Burton in January 2006.
Burton was a member of the Senate Curatorial Office at the time and asked if Le Roy would be willing to turn Clay’s painting over to the Senate.
“We didn’t know what to do,” said Belluscio. “We knew we couldn’t afford to fix it. We knew it was so big, there was no place to display it and no one wanted it.
“It was like, ‘Oh my god, yes, someone does,'” she continued. “It was a Cinderella story.”
It wasn’t until August 2007 that the painting was repaired by a restoration team in Maryland. The whole process took two years and was finally completed in spring 2009.
The painting was hung that Memorial Day weekend.
Initially, a trip to Washington was planned in June with the expectation that it would be a simple reception. But that was until Senator Chuck Schumer and Senator Mitch McConnell became interested in the project and dinner was scheduled on September 23 in the Senate Reception Room – not far from the Senate Chambers.
Initially only five people from Le Roy could attend, but a private tour of the Capitol, as well as a special tour of the painting and a meeting in the old Senate Chamber were planned.
So 44 people from Le Roy got on a bus to say goodbye to Henry Clay.
“Senate historian Richard Baker said the clay painting is probably one of the most significant projects that has been done,” wrote Belluscio, adding that there was a 20-minute DVD about the project.
People who ended up at dinner included Barb Elliott, Joanne Graham, GED Brady, Shelly Stein, and Belluscio. Schumer thanked the Le Roy Historical Society for the donation, which received applause from the senators, and McConnell, representing Kentucky, gave a speech on Clay.
After speeches, Belluscio said she had barely sat down to eat when she and the rest of the Le Roy group were called and Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont led her down the hall into the Senate Chamber.
“When we entered, we were all reminded that the public should never enter the Senate, but there we were,” she wrote.
Leahy invited everyone to sit at his desk before pointing out Daniel Webster’s unusual desk. Then, wrote Belluscio, to everyone’s surprise, he invited people to try the vice-presidency. When they returned to the Senate Reception Chamber, the event was over.
“We all talked about what a remarkable day it was,” she wrote. “All because of a very grubby, filthy painting by Henry Clay that has languished in the Historical Society for over 60 years.”