The so-called Senatorial “Hall of Fame” gained two new members Tuesday when the late Sens. Robert Wagner (D-N.Y.) and Arthur Vandenberg (R-Mich.) joined a quintet of legislative giants long known as the “famous five” on the walls of the historic Senate Reception Room.
The portraits — placed in two of the remaining six “medallions” left blank by the artist Constantino Brumidi in the late 1800s — depict the the pair of 20th-century Senators at the “height of their career,” said Senate Curator Diane Skvarla.
The additions were the first in nearly 50 years, since the initial five “outstanding” Senators — Daniel Webster (Whig-Mass.), John Calhoun (D-S.C.), Henry Clay (R-Ky.), Robert Taft (R-Ohio) and Robert La Follette (R-Wis.) — were selected by a Senatorial panel chaired by then-Sen. John F. Kennedy (D-Mass.) in 1957.
At Tuesday’s unveiling, the late president’s brother, Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), said the portraits served as a reminder to the Senate that “we are living for history” more so than for “the moment.”
After the 1959 unveiling of the first five portraits, four decades passed before then-Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) introduced a resolution directing that the portraits of two more “outstanding” Senators be commissioned. That was in 1999. The Senate approved the resolution the following year.
Lott’s resolution limited the pool of potential candidates to those Senators who were deceased, who had not held the office of Vice President, and whose service ended before 1979. Priority was also given to those not already represented in some fashion in the Capitol or Senate office buildings.
With the assistance of the Senate Historical Office, the Senate Commission on Art narrowed the roughly 1,500 eligible names for consideration down to 20 and finally to two, said Senate Historian Richard Baker. Under an unwritten understanding, one Democrat and one Republican would be honored. The 18 runners-up were not publicized.
Baker noted that both Vandenberg and Wagner were also among a list of 15 additional Senators included in the Kennedy committee’s original report for potential consideration “at some future date.”
The Senate Commission on Art selected the Nashville-based artist Michael Shane Neal to paint Vandenberg and chose the New York-based artist Steven Polson to paint Wagner.
Once work began, an advisory board and the commission closely monitored the progress of the portraits, which were painted from photographs.
“Each time they were at different stages we had them send slides or transparencies of the image, which we then enlarged ... and put a mock-up up,” Skvarla said.
The completed portraits were then cut into the round medallion shape, backed with synthetic canvas, and glued to the wall, she said.
Wagner, who served in the Senate from 1927 to 1949, first came to prominence when he chaired the New York Assembly committee that investigated the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Company fire, an event that precipitated greater workplace oversight and safety reforms. Wagner went on to serve on the New York Supreme Court before being elected to the Senate in 1926.
“Wagner was considered by the Kennedy committee,” Baker said. “The problem was his son was mayor of New York [at the time] and had an active political career going.”