Henry F. Darby, who painted this portrait of Henry Clay, shared a studio with noted painter Samuel Colman in the late 1850s. What little is known of Darby comes from Colman’s recollections and Darby’s own writings, now in the collection of the Oneida Historical Society in New York. These include correspondence and a journal he wrote at age 65 for his daughter.
Born in North Adams, Massachusetts, Darby was self-taught, except for brief instruction from itinerant painters. According to one account, he was painting in oils by 1842, when he was 13. Evidence of his precocity is found in a fascinating painting, The Reverend John Atwood and His Family, in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. Here Darby’s style is that of a determined New England limner, and the group portrait, fully signed and dated 1845, is a remarkable achievement, compelling in its realism.
In 1847 Darby became a teacher at the South Carolina Female College in Barhamville. He soon returned north, where he lived in New York City and Brooklyn from 1853 to 1860 and displayed portraits at the annual exhibitions of the National Academy of Design. In 1859-60 he showed paintings of John C. Calhoun and Clay. Darby, who was briefly married, divided his time between Brooklyn, his wife’s family home in Brownsville, New York, and Washington, D.C. He was a deeply religious man, and the death of his wife in 1858 impelled him to abandon portrait painting. After placing his young daughter in the care of his wife’s family, Darby studied for the ministry, and in 1865 he became deacon of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Whitesboro, New York. In 1869 he sailed to England, where he briefly served the Anglican Church. He had returned to America by 1873, when records place him at Saint Saviour’s Church in Bridgeport, Connecticut. Later he moved to New York City. Darby continued to paint–-mainly religious themes–-and he exhibited works as late as 1882 at the Utica Art Association. Few of these later works survive. Age brought failing health, and the artist took up residence with his daughter in Fishkill, New York, where he died in 1897.