Chas Fagan never got to meet Ronald Reagan — the former president came down with the flu when Mr. Fagan was scheduled to paint his portrait about 10 years ago — so the North Carolina artist studied hours of video to help him decide which facial expression to capture for his statue of the Republican icon, which will be unveiled Wednesday in the Capitol Rotunda.
The sculptor, charged with translating what he described as “an extremely dynamic face” into bronze, settled on the few seconds before Mr. Reagan displayed his characteristic wide smile.
“The moment before he says something great, his face would go through the exact same motion every time,” said Mr. Fagan, of Charlotte. “You can see his eyes are smiling already. … The corners of his mouth are moving, so you’ve got slightly parted lips, and he’s just about to speak, but you’ve got the beginning of a smile. The hope was to capture a warm expression and, with [Mr. Reagan], the one that we’re all most familiar with is the very large smile.”
Former first lady Nancy Reagan and California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger will join a bipartisan group of House and Senate leaders in the Rotunda to uncover Mr. Fagan’s 7-foot tribute to the nation’s 40th president, who served from 1981 to 1989.
The statue is part of the National Statuary Hall Collection, in which each state honors two historical figures with life-sized statues placed throughout the Capitol. Mr. Reagan’s statue will replace Thomas Starr King, a 19th-century San Francisco preacher.
Admirers and historians say the speed with which California legislators voted to bestow the honor upon Mr. Reagan in 2006, just two years after his death, speaks to the imposing legacy of the man whom many credit for defeating Soviet communism and who remains a revered figure in the Republican Party.
“I think it’s a real tribute to him that less than five years after his passing, he’s already being honored by a statue in the United States Capitol. Often times, it may take 100 years for that to happen,” said John D. Heubusch, executive director of the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation and Library in Simi Valley, Calif.
“There’s no question that President Ronald Reagan has already gone down in history as one of our greatest presidents,” he said.
Mr. Reagan’s statue initially will be housed alongside those of such fellow commanders in chief as George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln in the Rotunda. The congressional Joint Committee on the Library will later select a permanent spot somewhere within the Capitol complex, which includes the mammoth new Capitol Visitor Center.
Mr. Reagan’s embrace of the so-called peace-through-strength doctrine — under which the U.S. built up its military arsenal to deter the Soviet Union — is widely credited with helping speed the end of the Cold War and the liberation of Eastern Europe. On the domestic front, Mr. Reagan’s philosophy of minimal government intervention and supply-side economics became known as “Reaganomics.”
Mr. Reagan, who earned the nickname the “Great Communicator” for his eloquent yet folksy oratory, consistently ranks highly in polls rating the nation’s best presidents, Mr. Heubusch noted.
“To this day, when Gallup and other survey organizations ask the American people to list for us, ‘Who do you think was the greatest president of the United States?’ Ronald Reagan routinely comes up as number one, two or three alongside Senator [John F.] Kennedy and President Lincoln,” he said.
Statuary Hall dates back to the mid-19th century, when a larger House chamber was built in 1857 to accommodate a growing number of representatives, leaving the old chamber next to the Rotunda empty. In 1864, Congress voted to give each state the right to contribute two statues to decorate the room. After it became overcrowded with 65 statues, lawmakers in 1933 decided to distribute the statues throughout the building.
The collection became complete in 2005 with the addition of Pueblo leader Po’pay as New Mexico’s second statue. The most recent presidential honoree was Dwight D. Eisenhower, whose statue in 2003 replaced that of former Kansas Gov. George Washington Glick. In 2007, Michigan approved a resolution to add a statue of former President Gerald R. Ford, replacing former Sen. Zachariah Chandler.
California’s other statue, honoring Spanish missionary Miguel Jose Serra, will remain in the Capitol.
Mr. Reagan’s statue is not the first high-profile commission for Mr. Fagan, whose portrait of former first lady Barbara Bush hangs in the White House. Nevertheless, he admitted to added pressure with the new commission, given Mr. Reagan’s popularity and the Capitol’s “amazing” art collection.
“I try to ignore the pressure,” the 43-year-old artist said. “But historically and everything, just as an avid American art fan, the paintings, the Lincoln statue, there are some things in there that are unbelievable. … It was totally humbling.”
Mr. Heubusch of the Reagan Foundation said the event serves as a prelude to the celebration of what would be Mr. Reagan’s 100th birthday, which comes on Feb. 6, 2011.