By Jody Brumage
The U.S. Senate and House of Representatives each hold large collections of portraits depicting influential and power members of each body. Among the portraits preserved by the Office of the Historian of the U.S. House of Representatives is one of West Virginia Congressman Harley O. Staggers, Sr. The protrait was commissioned in 1976 by a resolution of the House Interstate and Foreign Commerce Committee to commemorate the tenth anniversary of Congressman Staggers becoming chairman. Attributed to Charles J. Fox, the oil portrait measures 30 by 40 inches and portrays its subject seated at the edge of his desk, surrounded by papers with the flag of the United States in the background. On April 6, 1976, the portrait was unveiled by Congressman Staggers' wife, Mary, in a ceremony in the committee's hearing room.
The day was certainly one of great pride for Congressman Staggers, as he expressed in his remarks to the audience assembled in the hearing room. Among those who spoke during the unveiling were Speaker of the House Carl Albert, House Majority Leader (and future Speaker) Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill, House Minority Leader John Rhodes, and committee ranking member Congressman Samuel Devine. The portrait's artist, Charles J. Fox attended the ceremony and brought his own prestige to the occasion. His work was well-known on Capitol Hill, having unveiled portraits of President John F. Kennedy, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, house leadership, committee chairmen, and other government officials at dozens of ceremonies in the 1960s and 70s.
The real artist behind the portraits commissioned under Fox's business was Irving Reskinoff, a Russian-born painter who had studied at the St. Petersburg Imperial Art Academy before fleeing the 1917 Revolution. He settled in New York with aspirations of become an abstract artist. Unable to achieve success as an independent painter, Reskinoff became a contract artist for Fox's studio and began painting portraits of prominent American citizens and government officials. For each commission, Reskinoff worked from a single profile of the subject, relying on other photographs or published images to complete the portraits. This arrangement lasted for over 40 years, during which Reskinoff received on average 5% commission on his portraits, with Fox taking the majority cut of the profits. Once the news of the scheme broke, Reskinoff finally received credit for his own portraits, ten of which are now preserved by the Historian’s Office in the House of Representatives.
Congressman Staggers’ portrait, attributed to C.J. Fox, but in reality painted by Irving Reskinoff, remains preserved today in the House of Representatives, the controversy over its artist an interesting, but little-known anecdote. You can learn more about Charles J. Fox, Irving Reskinoff, and their paintings in the halls of Congress on the House of Representatives’ History, Art, and Archives site here >>