The Capitol Dome

2018 Dome 55.1

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the U.S. Capitol—The Scene at the Signing of the U.S. Constitution. 4 The "Battle of the Portraits" Ella Rainey wasted little time in her quest to immor- talize her departed husband. By October 1934, she had travelled to Washington, D.C. and cleaned out his con- gressional office, assembling decades of bulging files of newspaper clippings and papers for a biography she intended to write. The valuable antiques would be sold. 5 "Everything we owned had associations," she lamented. "They mean nothing now." 6 Of utmost importance to Mrs. Rainey was the forth- coming commissioned portrait of her husband to be placed in the Capitol's Speaker's Lobby, where repre- sentatives gather to discuss legislative matters. By sheer luck, Christy was at the Capitol, and the two hit it off. "She has conferred with Howard Chandler Christy," newspapers said, and "showed him many pictures—her favorite poses of the Speaker; his favorite home nook among his books, the chair he loved best, made by his grandfather." 7 From this chance encounter, Mrs. Rainey left flat- tered and reassured. Christy walked away with several treasured photographs, imagining his next favorite painting. 8 In the coming days, eager artists throughout the country—weathering the strains of the Great Depression—read the newspaper accounts. They con- tacted Mrs. Rainey; she readily listened. By late January 1935, Christy completed Rainey's portrait (fig. 2), returning to Mrs. Rainey her precious photos. "Last week," Christy wrote to Mrs. Rainey, "I sent the portrait to Mr. [Bascom] Timmons in Washing- ton. I tried to get a good strong portrait of Mr. Rainey, together with his kindly expression. He was a man who had many friends—everyone has something fine to say of him—so he must have been both strong and kindly." 9 Christy's three-quarter length work, clad in a gilded frame, was placed in a vacant room in the Capitol. Within days, more framed paintings of Rainey in differ- ent sizes and styles arrived, giving Congress a "minor headache," the press reported. What had seemed like a shoe-in for Christy turned into an all-out war among artists. The press called it the "Battle of the Portraits." 10 By mid-February 1935, four paintings of Henry Rainey glistened in the incandescent light of an obscure committee room. Nailed to a wall or propped up on brass-tacked chairs, the images appeared surreal together. 11 Christy's downy-haired figure of the former leader, taller than the others, gazed upon another by Edward Child of Boston. Nicholas Brewer's fair like- ness spied its doppelgänger by the hand of Los Ange- les's Boris Gordon. Each artist believed he had received Mrs. Rainey's approval, as it was customary for the Speaker's family to select the honored painter. Here, no one knew of the stiff competition for the $2,500 commission—a sizable sum as the average annual American salary was $1,500. When an inquiry was made, it was discovered Mrs. Rainey had consented to anyone wishing to capture her husband's best traits on canvas. She never intended to hurt anyone. Speaker of the House Jo Byrns ordered the Joint Committee on the Library, headed by Rep. Kent Keller of Illinois, to settle the dispute. In the following Fig. 2. Christy's portrait of Speaker of the House Henry Thomas Rainey was completed in late January 1935 from photographs the Speaker's widow gave him. 3 THE CAPITOL DOME

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