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, 1852
Robert Weir (1803-1899)

View Artist Bio
Oil on canvas
28 1/8 x 35 3/4 inches
Signature Details: R. Weir 1852
Status: The Johnson Collection, Spartanburg, South Carolina

Robert Weir was for more than forty years Professor of Drawing at the United States Military Academy, West Point. He was also a portraitist, a religious painter, and a history painter whose Embarkation of the Pilgrims hangs in the rotunda of the United States Capitol.1 As a memorial to Senator Henry Clay, one of the most powerful men in American politics of his or any subsequent generation, Weir painted The Great Compromiser in the humble act of receiving his last communion.

Henry Clay (1777-1852) spent the summer of 1851 at his plantation home Ashland outside Lexington, Kentucky. He was an ill man, and he drew up his last will and testament on July 10; however, he was determined to take his seat in the thirty-second Congress, and to that end, he set out on the twelve-day journey to Washington in the late fall. (In those days Congress convened before Christmas and the New Year).2 He traveled in a two-horse carriage to Maysville where he boarded the Ohio River steamer Alleghany Belle, bound for Wheeling, West Virginia. There he boarded the stage coach that traveled over the National or "Cumberland" Road, the final leg of his journey. Clay appeared for roll call on the opening day of Congress, but it was to be his last appearance. On December 17 he formally resigned his seat, effective the following September. For the six months of his life that remained he stayed close to his rooms in the National Hotel. The National, a five-story brick building that had opened in 1826, stood at the northeast corner of Pennsylvania Avenue and Sixth Street and was particularly popular with Senators and Congressmen from the South. There Clay had a second-floor parlor and bedroom suite with board for thirty dollars per week.

During the months of his illness he was visited by many friends, political colleagues and dignitaries, including the Hungarian patriot Louis Kossuth. Gifts of patent medicines, fresh game, and exotic fruits came to him in abundance. Clay longed to return to Ashland to die; however his gradually deteriorating condition would not allow him to make the journey, nor was his wife Lucretia strong enough to come to him.

Early in May of 1852 his son Thomas was telegraphed to come to his father, and he did. He wrote home that he found Clay:

    greatly reduced in flesh; the same cough yet continues to harass and weaken him, and he is now unable even to walk across the room. . . he cannot talk five minutes in the course of the day without great exhaustion. . . and has to be carried from his bed to his couch. . . .3

Clay was visited at regular intervals by the Rev. C. M. Butler, Chaplain of the Senate and Rector of Trinity Church, which Clay attended when he was in Washington. Butler said, "From the commencement of his illness he always expressed to me his persuasion that its termination would be fatal." On June 16 Clay's son Thomas again wrote that he was "decidedly worse than he has been since my arrival . . . he had a copious perspiration, which has greatly weakened him. The attending physician, Dr. Hall, rubbed him all over the person with brandy and alum. He told me this morning that he did not think he should last more than ten days . . . ."4  He lasted thirteen days. Rev. Butler saw Clay for the last time on the evening of June 28.  Henry Clay died at seventeen minutes past eleven o'clock, on Tuesday, June 29, 1852. Present were his son Thomas, Clay's "faithful servant" James, and Senator James C. Jones of Tennessee.

Clay's death was an occasion for mourning throughout the country.  Bells tolled in Washington to proclaim his passing, and the following day both houses of Congress were adjourned. On July 1, the day of the funeral, it was reported that "Many of the houses, including the public buildings, were festooned with the badge of mourning . . . flags were at half-mast and minute guns were fired."5

That day a procession began that would take the Senator's body from Washington to Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York, Albany, Buffalo and down the Ohio River to its final resting place in Lexington, and that covered a total of 1,200 miles.

Clay's coffin was carried from the National Hotel to the United States Capitol in a procession made up of Senators and Congressmen, officers of the Army and Navy in full uniform, local officials of Washington, Baltimore, Alexandria and Georgetown and more. The funeral service was held in the Senate Chamber according to the liturgy of the Protestant Episcopal Church, of which Clay was a member. Rev. Butler conducted the service and preached the sermon. He chose as his text Jeremiah 48:17, "How is the strong staff broken and the beautiful rod," and spoke both of Clay's strength as a statesman and the beauty of his religious beliefs. In a personal way, he spoke of how he had come to know Clay in his final year.

    It is since his withdrawal from the sittings of the Senate that I have been made particularly acquainted with his religious opinions, character and feelings . . . from that period until his death it has been my privilege to have held with him frequent religious services and conversations in his room . . . . On another occasion, when he was supposed to be very near his end, I expressed to him the hope that his mind and heart were at peace, and that he was able to rest with cheerful confidence on the promises and merits of the Redeemer. He said, with much feeling, that he endeavored to, and trusted that he did repose his salvation upon Christ; and that it was too late for him to look at Christianity in the light of speculation; that he had never doubted of its truth; and that he now wished to throw himself upon it as a practical and blessed remedy. Very soon after this, I administered to him the Sacrament of the Lord's Supper. Being extremely feeble, and desirous of having his mind undiverted, no persons were present but his son and servant. It was a scene long to be remembered.  There, in that still chamber, at a week-day noon, the tides of life all flowing strong around us, three disciples of the Saviour --- the minister of God, the dying statesman, and his servant, a partaker of the like precious faith --- commemorated their Saviour's dying love. He joined in the blessed sacrament with great feeling and solemnity --- now pressing his hands together, and now spreading them forth, as the words of the service express the feelings, desires, supplications, and thanksgivings of his heart.6

It was this eloquent image of Henry Clay's last communion from Rev. Butler's description that Robert Weir chose to paint as his memorial. The setting and characters were provided by Butler; the finer points, and we will see that this is a picture rich in religious imagery, were provided by the artist's own imagination, himself an Episcopalian.

Weir apparently was a deeply religious man. Many of the pictures he painted over his lifetime were of a Biblical or sacramental nature. Subjects included Taking the Veil, The Evening of the Crucifixion, Christ in the Garden, Our Lord on the Mount of Olives, Child's Evening Prayer, which was in the collection of J. Tuckerman, and  Faith Holding the Sacramental Cup, which belonged to Jonathan Sturgis. I think it is the artist's strong religious nature that led him to paint Clay as he did rather than in the act of delivering an impassioned address on the floor of the Senate or an infinite number of other settings he could have chosen.

Weir was devoted to his church, the Episcopal Church, and when he received his commission of $10,000 from the United States government for his painting The Embarkation of the Pilgrims he had put the total sum toward the erection of a new parish church, the Church of the Holy Innocents, at Highland Falls one half mile south of West Point. It was begun in 1843 as a memorial to three of his children lost in infancy but by the time of its completion four years later it was also a memorial to his wife Louisa Ferguson Weir who had died in January of that year.

Perhaps Weir was inspired to paint his memorial to Clay by the impressiveness of the funeral cortege. An unnamed observer described the trip up the Hudson River after Clay's body had lain in state in the Governor's Room of New York's City Hall, "As we neared West Point, the booming canon reverberated from hill to hill. Cozzens' Hotel immediately lowered the American flag, and as we passed West Point a body of the cadets were drawn up in a line, and stood on the embankment, with heads uncovered. A national salute was fired from the boat, while the band on the boat played a beautiful funeral dirge."7

Weir had a unique vantage point from which to see the boat at close hand. His studio, as described by his son John Ferguson Weir, was right on the water directly below the bluff of West Point.

The year was 1852, the year in which Colonel Robert E. Lee began his three-year term as Superintendent of West Point. Lee was a frequent visitor to Weir's studio; in fact, John Ferguson recalled that the Superintendent and his father were "on terms of intimacy" with each other. Perhaps the Virginia soldier and the Professor of Drawing together witnessed this event that so stirred hearts across the nation as the preeminent statesman of the day made his final journey on that July day in 1852.

Weir's picture is rich in religious, and particularly eucharistic, iconography. The pitcher on the mantel represents the ewer holding the water in which the celebrant cleanses his hands, thus symbolizing purity. The chalice that the priest holds represents the blood of Christ, the blood that cleanses the body of all sin. The sheafs of grain represent the bread of the eucharist, the body of Christ, the body of which all participants in the Holy Communion are reaffirmed as members. The sunlight which pours through the window and bathes the figure of the dying statesman is also symbolic of Jesus Christ. The picture is almost, but not quite an apotheosis, while not showing the death or going so far to show an assumption of Clay's soul, it does show a moment when his soul was one with the Lord Jesus Christ.

The Last Communion of Henry Clay is history painting, religious painting, and genre at one and the same time. Weir has given us a history painting in that he represented an event that actually occurred based upon an eye witness account that was readily accessible in the newspapers. He has given us a religious painting in representing the blessed sacrament of the Lord's Supper. And with his painstaking attention to detail as seen in the small bouquet of flowers on the window ledge, the Book of Common Prayer on the table, the framed picture above the mantel, and many other details he shows his debt to the masters of Dutch genre painting, which he collected, and has given posterity a beautiful genre picture, very American and very much of its time.

Weir worked in that tradition of religious painting started by Benjamin West and carried on by his disciple Washington Allston.  Weir derived tremendous inspiration from Allston. He remarked to his friend William Cullen Bryant shortly after he had completed his colossal Embarkation of the Pilgrims, "It was encouragement to me during my long labors, that when they should be finished, Allston would see what I had done."8



1"Artists' Fund Society of New York, Instituted 1859 - Chartered 1861. Catalogue of the Fifth Annual Sale of Paintings, at the Galleries, No. 625 Broadway, New York, 1864. Printed for the Society by G. A. Whitehorne, 42 Ann Street." No. 100 as belonging to S. P. Avery.


2The New-York Times, Thursday, November 24, 1864, p. 5.


3J. Winston Colemen, Jr. Last Days, Death and Funeral of Henry Clay. Lexington, Ky: Privately published, 1951, p. 631.


4Ibid., p. 635.


5New York Daily Tribune, Friday, July 2, 1852, p. 5.


6Rev. Butler's sermon was widely published in newspapers. It appeared in New York Tribune, Friday, July 2, 1852.


7Report of the Committee of Arrangements of the Common Council of New York, of the Obsequies in Memory of the Hon. Henry Clay.  McSpedon & Baker, Printers, n.d., p. 51.


8H. P. Richardson. Washington Allston.


Cynthia Seibels

Copyright 1990 Robert M. Hicklin Jr., Inc.

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