Robert Walter Weir, a native of New Rochelle, New York, taught himself to paint by making copies of Rembrandt prints. He pursued formal study in Italy from 1824 to 1827, working first in Florence with Pietro Benvenuti. It was there that Weir, a devout man who viewed art as a means of inspiring the faithful, created his first religious works, Christ and Nicodemus and The Angel Relieving Peter. Weir moved on to Rome where he shared rooms with the sculptor Horatio Greenough before returning to America.
Settling in New York, Weir opened a studio and was elected to the National Academy of Design in 1829. As Professor of Drawing at the United States Military Academy beginning in 1834, his students included Ulysses S. Grant, Robert E. Lee, Seth Eastman and James Abbott McNeill Whistler. His 1836 mural in the West Point chapel, Peace and War, may have helped secure the artist’s commission to paint a large mural for one of the four blank panels in the Capitol rotunda. That work, Embarkation of the Pilgrims, was completed in the summer of 1843 and installed in the Capitol in December of that year. From 1843 to 1876, Weir was active as a painter of landscape art in the Hudson River style (Church of the Holy Innocents, Highland Falls, West Point); as a portraitist (Robert E. Lee and General Winfield Scott); as a history painter (Landing of Henry Hudson); and as a genre painter (St. Nicholas, the prototype for much of the subsequent Santa Claus iconography). The father of the artists John Ferguson Weir and Julian Alden Weir, he suffered a severe illness in 1866, slowing the pace of his career.
Weir’s own reverence informs this deathbed image of the eminent Kentucky statesman Henry Clay. Drawing on contemporary newspaper reports of Clay’s last days in May 1852, the artist has depicted Dr. Clement Moore Butler, chaplain of the Senate, visiting the senator in order to administer the Eucharist. In a scene rich with Gothic images and reflective of Weir’s mastery of the light of the Hudson River school, Clay—suffering the malignant effects of both tuberculosis and extended political strife—is presented in pious submission to imminent death. The first person to lie in state in the United States Capitol, Clay’s remains were ultimately returned to Lexington, Kentucky. There, his grave is marked by a headstone that reads, “I know no North, no South, no East, no West.”