Special Collections

John C. Calhoun Portrait

A full-length portrait of South Carolina statesman John C. Calhoun hangs in the lobby near the entrance to the R. M. Cooper Library. It was completed around 1900 by Tennessee artist Oliver Branson, having been commissioned by the Clemson University Board of Trustees as a copy of the G. P. A. Healy painting in the Charleston City Council Chamber. It was displayed for many years in Tillman Hall auditorium, and was restored by Leon Stacks of Morganton, NC, and placed in the Library in 1978.

The original artist, George P. A. Healy, was a prolific portraitist of the 19th century and skilled at creating dynamic images. In 1845, he painted a dramatic bust-length picture of Calhoun directly from life, the original of which hangs in the Greenville County Museum of Art. A replica (copy made by the artist) of that work is in the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, DC.

Upon Calhoun's death in 1850, the City Council of Charleston commissioned Mr. Healy to paint a full-length portrait. According to letters from Healy to the Mayor, the picture was to represent "Mr. Calhoun pronouncing his last discourse in the United States Senate." Healy further suggested that "a few of his friends might be introduced with good effect into the background listening." These are said to be, from left to right, Henry Clay, John Randolph of Virginia, Daniel Webster, and Robert Y. Hayne, formerly mayor of Charleston. The painting was delivered in the spring of 1851. Healy wrote, "I have taken the liberty of making Mr. Calhoun look a little younger, and in better health than he did for the past three or four years of his life." The size of the original was 4 feet, 8 inches, by 7 feet, ten inches.

Viewers of Cooper Library's portrait are often curious about the position of Mr. Calhoun's left hand with fingers spread over his chest. According to Jennifer Lankford, historian at the City of Charleston Council Chamber, "this gesture was often used as an 'orator pose', to indicate that the subject is speaking or petitioning to a large group...Also, the long slender fingers shown in this portrait are consistent with other portraits and early photographs of Calhoun." The pose is characteristic of John C. Calhoun, the fiery orator whose summer home became Clemson University.

Calhoun Portrait in Cooper Library