This formal portrait depicts West Virginia senator Robert C. Byrd during his years as Democratic leader. A master of the Senate’s rules and procedures, and a keen student of history, Byrd led his party as floor leader from 1977 to 1989, serving as Senate majority leader from 1977 to 1981 and again from 1987 to 1989. He also set a new record for the longest service of any U.S. senator. To represent institutions that Senator Byrd valued deeply, he is portrayed wearing his senator’s pin on the lapel of his suit jacket, resting his right hand on a family Bible, and holding a copy of the U.S. Constitution in his left hand. The painting is set in the venerable Old Senate Chamber and includes a likeness of Byrd’s high school sweetheart and wife, Erma.
Michael Shane Neal received the commission to paint Senator Byrd’s portrait in 2006 while the senator was still in office. Neal traveled from his studio in Nashville, Tennessee, to Washington, D.C., to study photographs of Byrd and examine the historic setting for the portrait. During the sittings at the Capitol, the young artist and the senior senator developed an easy rapport. The completed portrait was approved by the senator and accepted by the U.S. Senate Commission on Art in 2007. Robert C. Byrd died in office in 2010 at age 92.
Artist Michael Shane Neal received his degree in 1991 from David Lipscomb University in Nashville, Tennessee. Since beginning a full-time career as an artist at the age of 21, he has completed more than 500 portraits of prominent figures in government, academia, and business, including U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor and Ambassador Paul H. Nitze. Neal’s portraits of Senators William H. Frist and Arthur H. Vandenberg are also in the Senate collection.
The longest serving senator in history, Robert C. Byrd gained his higher education in the United States Senate. Rising from an impoverished childhood in the coalfields of West Virginia, Byrd entered public office in 1947 without a college degree. As a senator he earned a law degree by attending classes in the evenings, and never stopped studying. His careful reading of the Senate’s rules, precedents, and history made him a formidable opponent in debate, and fueled his rise through party leadership to become Democratic Conference secretary (1967-1971), whip (1971-1977), and leader (1977-1989). He delivered more than a hundred addresses on the history of the Senate, which were collected and published for the Senate’s bicentennial in 1989. On September 15, 1998, Senator Byrd delivered a “Leader’s Lecture” to his colleagues in the Old Senate Chamber. Senator Byrd died on June 28, 2010, having served for 51 years, 5 months, and 26 days.