This oil on canvas portrait of Daniel Webster has been in the Senate since it was purchased from 19th-century photographer Mathew Brady in 1881. The picture was acquired together with canvases of Henry Clay and John C. Calhoun; all three are believed to have been based on Brady daguerreotypes of the senators. The paintings were exhibited for many years at Brady’s New York City photographic gallery and later at his studio in Washington, D.C. Shortly before he sold the three portraits to the government, Brady was forced to use them as collateral for a loan. Documents indicate that he later paid the loan and therefore retained ownership of the paintings.
The portraits of Clay and Calhoun are known to be the work of Henry Darby, but Webster’s portrait is unsigned. It is believed to have been executed by the painter Richard Francis Nagle. Nagle was born and trained in Dublin, Ireland. He immigrated to the United States and is known for portraits of several New York natives, including likenesses of Generals Winfield Scott and Ulysses S. Grant. A Nagle descendant claimed that the artist had been acquainted with Mathew Brady. Indeed, the New-York Historical Society’s collection contains a portrait of Brady–-albeit not from life–-by Nagle.
Brady himself ascribed the Webster painting to an artist named Nagle in an 1881 signed statement to the Joint Committee on the Library: “Webster visited my gallery in June 1849. . . . Five different sittings were made on this occasion–-Nagle the artist of New York–-made his study for the painting at the same time.” Although it cannot be verified that Nagle actually lived in New York City, his portraits connect the artist to that region. Moreover, the Webster painting bears stylistic resemblances to many of Nagle’s other works.
This painting was previously misattributed to the better known Philadelphia artist John Neagle, an apparent error made by a clerk in the U.S. Capitol in the 19th century. No documentary evidence exists to link the picture to this artist, nor does the painting resemble other works by John Neagle.
One of the nation's greatest orators, Daniel Webster was both a U.S. senator from Massachusetts and a U.S. representative from Massachusetts and New Hampshire. Webster was born in Salisbury, New Hampshire, and gained national prominence as an attorney while serving five terms in the U.S. House of Representatives. He successfully argued several notable cases before the Supreme Court of the United States that helped define the constitutional power of the federal government. In Trustees of Dartmouth College v. Woodward, the Court declared in favor of Webster's alma mater, finding private corporation charters to be contracts and therefore protected from interference by state legislative action. In McCulloch v. Maryland, the Court upheld the implied power of Congress to charter a federal bank and rejected the right of states to tax federal agencies. Webster also argued the controversial Gibbons v. Ogden case, in which the Court decided that federal commerce regulations take precedence over the interstate commerce laws of individual states.
After his election to the U.S. Senate in 1827, Webster established his oratorical reputation in the famous 1830 debate with Robert Young Hayne of South Carolina over the issue of states' rights and nullification. Defending the concept of a strong national government, Webster delivered on January 26 and 27 his famous reply to Hayne. “We do not impose geographical limits to our patriotic feeling,” he insisted, arguing that every state had an interest in the development of the nation and that senators must rise above local and regional narrow-mindedness. The Constitution is the supreme law of the land, he warned, and any doctrine that allowed states to override the Constitution would surely lead to civil war and a land drenched with “fraternal blood.” The motto should not be “Liberty first, and Union afterwards,” Webster concluded, but “Liberty and Union, now and forever, one and inseparable!” Within weeks of the debate, Webster had become a national hero. His Senate oration was in greater demand than any other congressional speech in American history. Webster then served a distinguished term as secretary of state from 1841 to 1843, negotiating the Webster-Ashburton Treaty that settled a dispute over the boundary between the U.S. and Canada. He later returned to the Senate, where he championed American industry and opposed free trade.
If Webster's impassioned oratory was legendary, it was intensified by his unforgettable physical presence. Dark in complexion, with penetrating eyes–often likened to glowing coals–he had an electrifying effect on anyone who saw him. Nineteenth-century journalist Oliver Dyer wrote: “The God-like Daniel . . . had broad shoulders, a deep chest, and a large frame. . . . The head, the face, the whole presence of Webster, was kingly, majestic, godlike.” 
Increasingly concerned with the sectional controversy threatening the Union, Webster supported Henry Clay's Compromise of 1850. On March 7, 1850, he delivered one of his most important and controversial Senate addresses. Crowds flocked to the Senate Chamber to hear Webster plead the Union's cause, asking for conciliation and understanding: “I wish to speak today not as a Massachusetts man, nor as a Northern man, but as an American. . . . I speak today for the preservation of the Union. Hear me for my cause.” Webster's endorsement of the compromise–including its fugitive slave provisions–helped win its eventual enactment, but doomed the senator's cherished presidential aspirations. Webster became secretary of state again in 1850, and he died two years later at his home in Marshfield, Massachusetts.
1. Oliver Dyer, Great Senators of the United States Forty Years Ago (1848 and 1849) (1889; reprint, Freeport, NY: Books for Libraries, 1972), 251-253.