Chester Harding, Daniel Webster, n.d [ca. 1845-52], oil on canvas, 30”x 25”
This full profile, bust length portrait of the distinguished American statesman Daniel Webster is one of at least seventeen likenesses that Chester Harding made of his lifelong friend. Harding actively pursued prominent figures to paint, recognizing their value to his reputation, and this is likely how the two met. In 1827, after returning from a three-year painting trip to England, Harding was first commissioned to paint Webster’s wife, Grace Fletcher Webster. The following year, then-Senator Webster sat for him as well, the first of many portraits Harding made of him. In spite of their very different backgrounds, they were often included in the same social circles in Boston, and their daughters were devoted friends. Harding much admired Webster, referring to him often in his letters, as well as his memoir, and was proud of these connections.
Daniel Webster began his political career in 1813 when, as a young attorney, he was elected to the United States House of Representatives in his native New Hampshire. He later resettled in Boston, and was a delegate at the Massachusetts Constitutional Convention in 1821. He again served in the United States House, this time representing Massachusetts, a post he held until 1827, when he became a United States Senator. He was initially elected as a Federalist, but eventually joined the Whig Party, which, with members from both the North and the South, believed in the primacy of Congress over the Presidency, as well as a policy of modernization that included rapid economic and industrial growth, improvement of infrastructure, and universal public education. As a Whig, Webster was twice Secretary of State (1841-1843 and 1850-1852), and in 1852, was the party’s failed Presidential candidate, likely a result of his unfaltering support of compromise in the slave issue.
“Liberty and union, now and forever, one and inseparable!”
Daniel Webster’s legacy is multifaceted, but the great orator is best remembered for his passionate fight to preserve the Union in the fractious years leading up to the Civil War. He fervently believed that, “It is to that Union we owe our safety at home, and our consideration and dignity abroad.” He was an outspoken anti-abolitionist, not for a personal stance on the issue of slavery, but rather for his belief that the disruptions of the anti-abolitionists jeopardized the unity and stability of the nation. Despite the political peril, he was resolute in his support of compromise, and the gradual removal of slavery, ardently opposing the idea of secession. Daniel Webster died in 1852, just as the Whig Party was beginning to disintegrate over the issue of the expansion of slavery to the territories, but his remarkable eloquence in argument immortalizes him as one of the greatest orators in United States history.
Though they often encountered each other socially, Webster apparently only sat for Harding on two occasions. This full profile portrait is most likely made from an early daguerreotype image taken before 1845 by Southworth and Hawes of Boston from which the artist made many replicas over a course of years. When artist and inventor Samuel F. B. Morse brought the daguerreotype process to the United States in 1839, many felt that the technology would be the end of portrait painting. Many artists, however, including Harding, used it to their advantage as it allowed them to render likenesses from afar, eliminated the need for long sittings, and made it possible to paint memorial portraits of the deceased. Painted portraits of prominent politicians were being commissioned at unprecedented rates for civic buildings and private homes alike in the rapidly growing nation, and photography allowed artists to meet that great demand.
Though this painting was taken from a two-dimensional photograph, it is in many regards a very human rendering of Webster. The painting shows the full development of Harding’s talent, with realistic three-dimensional rendering. In full, left profile, his visible eye appears to gaze at nothing, suggesting an inwardly focused contemplation. There is a pensive quality to the portrait, though it is unclear whether this was the artist’s intent or merely a matter of the stillness required for the long exposure times for daguerreotype images. Webster’s body is rendered comfortably, the proportions correct and with none of the stiffness seen in other Harding portrayals of Webster, including the ones taken from live sittings. It is known that Harding was preoccupied with achieving a true likeness in the face, with body, clothes, and hands being secondary in importance, and very often significantly less developed. Here, the whole person hangs together in a naturalistic way. Working from the daguerreotype may have allowed Harding the luxury of giving equal time to his sitter’s body.
The undated painting had to have been made after the introduction of daguerreotype in 1839. Based on its similarity to several dated paintings Harding made from the same daguerreotype, it was likely painted between 1845 and 1852. Daniel Webster was in the final stretch of his distinguished life, at the center of what was perhaps the most tumultuous era of United States history. This sensitive and contemplative portrait captures the seriousness of that moment when Webster’s beloved nation stood at the brink of the ultimate fracture that turned into the Civil War.
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