Senate’s ‘Florida Case’ tells story of major event with miniature details

There are more than 70 paintings on display in the Senate, but few pack as much onto a single canvas as “The Florida Case before the Electoral Commission.” This large, colorful oil painting, which hangs next to a door labeled “Senators’ Gallery” on the Senate’s third floor, is not only a striking depiction of that heated event in 1877 but also a vibrant snapshot of the many unique and noteworthy personalities active in Washington’s political scene at the time.

The piece was painted by Cornelia Adele Fassett, a respected portrait artist from New York who had trained in Europe and worked in Chicago before moving to the nation’s capital. In 1877 Fassett was granted access to the Capitol’s Supreme Court Chamber, where the nation’s highest court met before receiving its own building. She spent two summers working independently on “The Florida Case before the Electoral Commission.”

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The painting is a record of an especially controversial chapter in American campaign history. More than a century before it became the focal point of yet another hotly contested presidential race in 2000, Florida was one of four states at the center of a political quagmire when, in 1876, confusion over their ballots led to both the Republican and Democratic candidates claiming victory in the presidential election.

To solve the problem, Congress established the Electoral Commission on Jan. 29, 1877. Over the course of nine days, the 15 members of the commission — divided evenly between Republicans and Democrats, plus one independent justice — debated over who had won the election. There were 20 electoral votes in question, all of which the Democrats needed in order to win. In the end they all went to Republican candidate Rutherford B. Hayes, garnering him the presidency as well as nicknames like “Rutherfraud” and “His Fraudulency” from embittered Democrats.

Fassett’s painting vividly captures the magnitude of the event. There are more than 250 people depicted in it, all of them situated around the central figure of William M. Evarts, counsel for Hayes. Fassett was especially accomplished when it came to painting miniature portraits, and she took advantage of her skill by including as many famous faces from the time as possible. Among the more recognizable figures in the painting are Frederick Douglass, the African-American orator and abolitionist; art collector William Wilson Corcoran, who had founded the Corcoran Gallery of Art; and Mary Clemmer Ames, a popular author and member of the women’s-suffrage movement. Fassett even managed to include herself in the scene, hard at work sketching a picture of Evarts at the bottom of the painting.

Some of the people depicted weren’t even in attendance at the event itself. Associate Senate Curator Melinda Smith suggested a possible reason for Fassett’s including so many important historical figures in her painting.

“Fassett herself was well-connected in Washington circles,” she said. “The event itself was well-attended. Everybody — the press, prominent men and women — attended the event. Perhaps she was both trying to acknowledge the event’s importance as well as her skill with painting miniature portraits.”

Despite the artist’s ambition, the painting met with mixed reviews upon its completion in 1879.

“There were some issues with the organizational demands of such an ambitious portrait with so many faces in it,” Smith said.

One critic, writing for the Chicago Daily Tribune, argued the painting would never be bought, saying it was devoid of “any artistic merit.” Indeed, it took seven years for Congress to finally purchase the painting from Fassett — albeit at a price lower than she had originally asked.

“There was some debate about the portrait,” Smith said. “Congress debated about whether it was appropriate to acquire a painting that depicted such a recent event.”

In spite of the controversy, the painting has been in the same location for most of its time in the Senate. And while the painting’s artistic merits might still be in doubt, its significance as a cultural and historical document has only grown with time.

“It’s a very intriguing painting,” Smith said. “It makes you want to know more about the event and who these folks were. It really does make you appreciate the work of Congress.”