Majority leader duped into his portrait

Quiet Montana senator memorialized, whether he wanted to be or not.

Mike Mansfield, a senator from Montana and the longest-serving majority leader in congressional history, had no patience for portraits. According to the Senate curator’s office, Mansfield declined to sit for an official portrait shortly before his retirement from the Senate in 1977, stating, “When I’m gone, I want to be forgotten.”

Despite his aversion, a 6.5-by-4-foot likeness of the senator, painted by Aaron Shikler, can be found in the Mike Mansfield Room on the Capitol’s second level, just off the Senate floor. With pipe in hand and a ponderous look on his face, Mansfield appears relaxed in the portrait.

It was no easy feat to get Mansfield to sit for a painter — the notoriously shy senator was tricked by philanthropist Jane Englehard into posing. During the 1977 Christmas holiday, Englehard invited Mansfield and Shikler to her Florida home, with the hope that the statesman would sit for a portrait in a more relaxed setting.

Englehard told Mansfield that she was bringing Shikler down so he could paint her likeness. However, Englehard had no intention to sit for Shikler — she feigned illness when the two arrived and asked Mansfield to sit in her place.

The result of Englehard’s crafty ruse is a detailed portrait that stands out from other portraits around the Capitol. Mansfield, amid a textured backdrop of white and beige, appears to be deep in thought. His face is textured with wizened wrinkles, and it carries a subtle smile as he looks off into the distance holding a pipe, which he was famous for smoking. Streaks of white run through his hair, but the senator looks strong and healthy with his arms crossed in his navy-colored suit. 

Associate Senate Curator Melinda Smith said Shikler’s depiction of Mansfield stands out from other portraits around the Senate because of its light background, commanding three-quarter-length pose and informality.

“Its idiosyncratic appearance is due mostly to the nature of the way it was commissioned and executed,” she said. “The lighter-color background, rather than the darker-color background that you see in a lot of Senate portraiture, allows the subject to stand forward, and your focus is on Mansfield as a result.”

A passer-by without any previous knowledge of Mansfield could perceive the senator as someone with extensive knowledge about politics and the world. Indeed, Mansfield has a résumé that few politicians can rival.

He first entered politics in 1942 when he won a House seat. A decade later, the Montana Democrat was elected to the Senate, where he eventually served as majority leader for 16 years, the longest tenure of any party leader. Some of Mansfield’s accomplishments include playing a vital role in the passage of civil rights and voting rights legislation in the early 1960s, leading the passage of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society programs, and investigating the Watergate scandal, according to the Senate Curator’s office. Mansfield continued working until his death in 2001, serving as ambassador to Japan under the Carter and Reagan administrations, and later as an East Asia adviser for Goldman Sachs.

Smith said the portrait has been hanging in the Mike Mansfield Room since its completion in 1978. The room is meant for Senate business like weekly caucus meetings, but in 1977, senators used it as a dorm during a filibuster for the removal of price controls on natural gas, she said.

The associate Senate curator added that, before the resolution to name the room after Mansfield was considered and approved, a large number of senators volunteered to speak about him. One senator, noting Mansfield’s quiet manner, said, “It’s a paradox that we’re saying so much today in tribute to a man who’s noted, among other things, for saying so little.”

The long list of senators who paid tribute to Mansfield, according to Smith, was indicative of his influence.

“I think that the number of tributes that were spoken when the legislation was passed is a testament to the legacy that he created for himself here in the Senate,” she said.