Black lawmaker lives on in portrait

Blanche Kelso Bruce continues to bring diversity to the Senate more than 100 years after his time there ended.

Bruce was the first African-American to serve a full Senate term and to preside over the chamber. His portrait, on the Capitol’s third floor, was commissioned in an attempt to add more diverse figures to the Senate art collection.

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The former slave was Mississippi’s Republican senator from 1875 to 1881. He was known for fighting to secure rights for African-Americans.

Artist Simmie Lee Knox painted Bruce’s portrait using a black-and-white photo of the senator. But Knox employed nearly every color on his palette to portray a poised and relaxed man. Brilliant blue hues, for instance, capture Bruce sitting in an ornately decorated chair, and his pocket watch and tablecloth feature hues from across the color spectrum.

“[Knox] was able to bring the life from the photograph in a way that is to pay tribute to the senator. It was excellently executed,” says Melinda Smith, an associate Senate curator.

Smith said Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.), a member of the Senate Commission on Art, initially asked for Bruce’s portrait.

Knox finished the portrait in late 2001, and the Senate unveiled it in September 2002, she said. The curators and Dodd decided together to hang the portrait on the third floor near the visitor galleries so the public could see it. The painting, roughly 4 feet tall by 3 feet wide, sits in a regal gold frame in front of a pale green wall.

Smith explained that, as the Senate art collection grew, curators and other officials recognized a need to diversify its pieces and the people whom they represent. Specifically, they wanted more women and minorities represented in the artwork.

“I think he [Bruce] does represent that population,” she said.