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Portraits of U. S. Supreme Court Justices



“Four Justices” oil painting, by Nelson Shanks

The United States Supreme Court has a long history of collecting art to  display in its building, the Temple of Justice built in 1935. Before the crowning of  the Supreme Court  Building , the Supreme court had collected art pieces since 1830. When they finally got their own building ,the art collection grew also. Then in 1975, the Office of Curator was established to oversee the increasing collection of art.


The Justices of the Supreme Court of the United States, 1876 Conté crayon drawing by Cornelia Adèle Fassett, after photographs by Samuel Montague Fassett, 1876

Chief Justice  Warren Burger was responsible for getting the Office of Curator going and with the Supreme Court Historical Society , together they made an exhibition program. Some of these exhibits include: The Supreme Court Building: America’s Temple of Justice, In Re Lady Lawyers: the Rise of Women Attorneys and the Supreme Court, All Together for the Camera: 150 Years of Group Photographs, and Forgotten Legacy: Judicial Portraits by Cornelia A. Fassett.


More than 150 years ago , the Supreme Court started a tradition of having a group photograph taken of the Supreme Court Justices for that year. A local photographer of the D.C. area was commissioned to take the photograph. Certain mandatory rules were followed such as “seating of the justices” was arranged according to seniority.  Individual portraits and paintings were also made of a specific Chief Justices such as  Chief Justice John Marshall who’s tenure was from 1840-1890. His portrait was a silhouette with him holding his legal papers.


silhouette of Chief Justice John Marshall

Another story is about how the portrait of Justice John McLean 1850 was found in a Californian antique shop during the 1960’s. A lady found the portrait, bought it and called the portrait her “Uncle Ralph”. The artist was never verified but a guess is that G.P.Healy could have done the painting.


The very contemporary oil painting “The Four Justices” was made by Nelson Shanks. This group portrait is quite large at 9.5’x 8′ with the frame. Shanks painted the portrait from life as opposed to only using photographs for reference.  According to him, it was difficult to get all four Chief Justices together for a sitting but the artist insisted because:

“Representation of character is really what counts to me”

There is no other way to paint that without painting from life and getting to know the Chief Justices while they posed for their group portrait . True to traditional rules of seniority, the senior justices sit on the couch while the more recent ones are standing behind. These four justices include:

  • Sandra Day O’Connor, first female U.S. Supreme Court Justice appointed in 1981 by President Reagan
  • Ruth Bader Ginsburg, appointed in 1993 by President  Obama
  • Sonia Sotomayer appointed by President Obama and the first Latino Supreme Court Justice
  • Elena Kagen, appointed by President Obama.

Why did Shanks paint only four Chief Justices? the answer is that this artist wanted to honor the struggle for women’s equality on  the Supreme Court that these particular four women achieved.  The history of the fight for equality on the court goes back to 1879 when Belva Lockwood  was the first woman to argue a case before the Supreme Court. Sandra Day O’Connor in 1981 became the first woman justice on the Supreme Court  after one failed attempt by another woman justice years before. To continue the struggle for justice, Sonia Sotomayer is the first Latino Supreme Court Justice appointed.

“The Four Justices” oil painting by Nelson Shanks in the Supreme Court Building

Nelson Shanks painted “Four Justices” in oil and its composition was modeled after Dutch group portraiture. The building seen in this painting is of the Supreme Court Building in Washington D.C. Shanks’ painting belongs to the Ian&Annette Cumming Collection and is on loan to the Supreme Court building art collection.




youtube video from The David Rubenstein Show, Oct.2,2019 Continue reading “Portraits of U. S. Supreme Court Justices”

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Formal Painting with Carolus Duran

Carolus Duran

Carolus Duran , 1838-1917, was a renown painter of the 19th century and particularly recognized as the teacher of John Singer Sargent. Duran was a great admirer of Velazquez and Manet. At the beginning of his career, Duran was an academic painter but as his ideas and studio work progressed, his distinctive  alla-prima technique led him away from how the Impressionists were working at the time. Early in his career he made a painting of his wife and submitted it to the Paris Salon in 1869 . The painting was accepted and his reputation as a portrait painter began.

In Paris , Duran opened a studio in 1873 which became quite well-known for its open and inviting atmosphere. Here  international students of art came and learned from his studio practice. The master was easy-going and yet kept a Monday through Friday schedule for working in his studio. Sargent and other American artists attended this studio to learn the new developments of Impressionism  and art in Europe that had not yet reached  the United States .

Even though Carolus Duran’s painting career declined during the 1880’s, his studio did not. In fact it gained much esteem and Duran found a new role in becoming a founding member of the Societe Nationale des Beaux-Arts  in 1893. Painters at his studio no longer  followed the curriculum of  the Ecole des Beaux Arts but adopted more progressive ways where painting was emphasized  over drawing. Emphasis on form and color, instead of line, and  direct handling of paint ,versus glazes, became standard practice by the artists of Duran’s studio.


Excerpt from, post: Irving Ramsey Wiles,1861-1948 American Impressionism  ( my blog no longer published)

A manuscript “Manual of Oil Painting” written by John Collier and used by Carolus-Duran gives us a glimpse into the routine of his atelier and his method of painting. In the manual, Collier describes each day of the week and how to set up a palette of colors. On Mondays, a model posed before a saturated colored background while his students drew the model using charcoal. To later reinforce their charcoal outline, a sable brush with a mixture of turpentine and a dark color was used. On Tuesday, Duran criticized their figure drawings, showed how to correct them, or got them started with laying in their painting. Then, a palette of colors were  produced in a very specific order. The colors on the palette consisted of black, verte emeraude, raw umber, cobalt, light red, yellow ochre, and white. These colors were placed on a wood palette from left to right. Next, by adding white pigment, 2 or 3 tones of each pigment were also placed on the palette. For example, cobalt blue included cobalt, medium blue, and very light blue. Before starting to paint,  only large brushes were allowed while the small brushes were set aside. By Friday, painters were ready to finish their pieces after Duran’s final critique. Paintings were completed on Fridays so new ones could be started on Mondays.

Included in this Manual are notes of  how a painting should look at each step of completion. For example, no monochrome or grisaille under painting was allowed. The main planes of the model’s face were applied with a broad brush on the canvas. The edges of these planes were not smoothed over or blended but kept raw and rough. This was to emphasize the structure of the planes and show how the gradations are achieved by color tone. No chaotic or haphazard process of painting was allowed. All literalness was resisted while painterly freedom was encouraged without losing the logic of creating form by color tone. Using thick paint seemed to enable more paint to flow on the canvas; carefully layered glazes were replaced by these thick, bold strokes. Carolus-Duran reminded his students that the real business of painting is learned from nature ultimately.

for further study:

  1. James Gurney’s weblog:Dinotopia
  2. Https://





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No Time For Brushes

painting knife painting, Musician, oil  on board,  by Beth Inglis Simmons


For artists, brushes aren’t always the best tools for making art. Brent Cotton, a living artist in Montana, says his painting pieces are usually  three quarters done by using a “palette knife”. Otherwise, he finds some hardware store brushes to lay in the initial draft of his painting. Palette or painting knives offer much for the artist. To clarify if necessary, there is a difference between a palette knife and a painting one. A palette knife generally has a long blade which is used to mix paints on a palette. They also clean palettes by scraping off  unused paint. A painting knife has a somewhat flexible metal blade with a wood handle. Just above the blade, there is a bend whose purpose is to keep knuckles from touching wet paint on the canvas.  Blades come in pear , diamond, and trowel shapes. The similarities between palette and painting knives include having blunt  ends and very sharp edges. Both palette and painting  knives are available in various sizes.

Why use painting knives instead of brushes? For one, to get different effects like impasto texture, large areas of smooth flat color and to make a three-dimensional effect. Painting knife method does liven up an area of dull color and enables an artist to paint more loosely and painterly.  Plus, painting knives are much easier to clean. Just wipe off excess paint with a clean cloth.

Which is better: to use metal or plastic? For those starting out, plastic painting knives are ok;  however, the springiness of a steel blade can’t be beat for  more advanced painters. These steel knives are less likely to break and will last longer, too. In the spirit of experimentation, other knife like materials to use are old credit cards cut in half and metal or plastic rulers.


Painting knives generally have blunt ends but come in different shapes and sizes. For example, an angular long blade makes sweeps of color , while a knife  with a more rounded end is useful for adding dabs of color layering. A sharper, pointed blade works well for making sgraffito, as in scratching in blades of grass. When choosing a knife, one which  is comfortable to hold and has a “springy” blade is best.

The versatility of painting with a painting knife is worth doing. For example, to first get paint on the canvas hold the knife like a conductor holds a baton and then sweep up swaths of thickly mixed paint with the side of the knife. For small details, use the tip. Cleaning your knife withe the wipe of a clean rag after applying each color keeps your colors from getting muddy.

Another technique is to use the long side of the knife and apply paint like buttering a piece of bread. To create some texture, press the blade to the surface and lift off. For fine lines, use the edge or tip of the blade and for dots, use the rounded tip of the blade, which is similar to a filbert brush. To make some heavy duty ridges, press  the blade flat into thick paint. Sgraffito is a useful way to expose the under layers of paint perhaps made with a brush.

Painting without brushes is nothing new or modern. Renaissance and Baroque artists used  this painterly style. Van Gogh painted with painting knives in the 19th century and artists like Jackson Pollock and Frank Auerbach did so in the 20th century. There is much wisdom to be gained from the past. For example, to avoid cracking of the paint as it dries, use a very firm surface for the painting to begin with such as Ampersand and Gessobord. Also when making an under painting, use oil paint thinned with Gamblin Gamsol, or something comparable,   and then apply the mixture with a large bristle brush like a #10 or #12. For the under painting using analogous colors to the final layer brings greater harmony to the painting.

Best to let knife paintings dry for a long time. Dry to the touch is deceiving because usually there are under layers that are still wet. Sometimes a painting takes 6-12 months to dry, after which it is advisable  to varnish as a seal of protection.

In conclusion, if there are too many hard edges in the painting, soften them by using a paint brush or to let the first layer appear through the second layer. What are the advantages of painting with knives? There are many  but mostly to facilitate painting with energy and expression!



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Painting at the Boston MFA




In a surge of focus and commitment, I headed to Boston for a 4 day workshop of intensive painting.  My familiarity with the Boston Museum of Fine Arts goes back  many years;  say to the mid- 1980’s when I enrolled in two classes: design and painting at the Museum School adjacent to the the Museum of Fine Arts. It was spring and my last few months in Boston before returning home to Wisconsin.

My memory of those classes propelled my art endeavors for a long time afterwards. Mostly, I felt so appreciated for becoming an artist and fine art enthusiast.  It made sense then to rekindle, get clarity, or simply immerse myself in some serendipity by returning to this museum for a brief time. So painting in oils for 4 days seemed just right.


The Museum of Fine Arts faces both the Fenway and Huntington Avenue. Remembering the Fenway, I entered through the doorway and with directions in hand followed a byzantine pathway to a room somewhere on the lower level.  The workshop had started  and we were introducing ourselves and mentioning what each of us liked. There were about 10 artists attending, all female except one male besides the teacher. Ethnicity was varied and I was the only one from Wisconsin. Not wasting any time, the teacher, Jeff Heins, gave a demonstration of our first painting assignment.  Jeff explained how to start a painting focusing on  the figure – ground relationship. Then he proceeded to show us how to paint the cast shadows thus establishing a value system. Pieces of artificial fruit were placed on a table with a dark  background and direct lighting. From this set-up,  our 1st acrylic paintings of the figure – ground dimension were created. The results were clarifying and pleasing.


For the next day and a half, the class continued to develop this initial painting into a completed realistic oil painting with color and a 3-dimensional quality.  On the third day, each artist brought in a photo or some favorite items to make as a still life. These paintings began in the same way as the first painting by creating the  value structure. Subjects included were various like a champagne bottle in a bucket, photo of a windmill, photo of an Indian dancer, photo of one of Sargent’s portraits in the Museum, a picture of a dog, a landscape with a sailboat and a still life of pieces of candy. The atmosphere was focused and friendly. The schedule during the four days started at 10:15 AM until 2:15 PM with a break in between.

By workshop participant

Om the last day, Jeff  took the class into the museum to see several paintings which showed how certain artists approach making the 2-dimensional canvas  into a 3-dimensional image fit for a museum. John Singer Sargent’s room of paintings was a highlight even with a very large painting by Kehinde Wiley which could have a room of its own.  At the end of four days,  a variety of oil paintings from everyone brought something new to my painting process as well as benefiting from the  liveliness of painting with other artists.  Many thanks to Jeff whose guidance , suggestions, and oversight kept all the  artists engaged in their paintings. Continue reading “Painting at the Boston MFA”

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The Painter : Fairfield Porter

How does the American culture jump from the turn of the 20th century Impressionism to the Abstract Expressionists of the mid-21st century? Part of the answer may lie with artists like Fairfield
Porter of Southampton, New York. His career took off in the 1950’s at the same time as the Abstract Expressionists like Jackson
Pollack and deKooning.  Fairfield Porter was both an art critic for the  “Art News” and an accomplished painter. Portraiture and figure painting were losing the attention of New York galleries and the rest of America in the face of these new trends. Porter fought tenaciously to become a figure painter and not only succeeded but mentored younger artists while leaving a legacy of many paintings to the  Parrish Art Museum  near Southampton, Long Island, New York.

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Fairfield Porter in studio

Born 1907, Porter was the son of James Porter, an architect, and Ruth Furness Porter, a poet from a literary family. One of his brothers was Eliot Porter, a nature photographer. Their father , a wealthy man, bought an island Great Spruce Head island in Maine where he built his family’s summer mansion. Fairfield’s wife, a talented poet, was known as Anne Channing Porter of Southampton. After graduating from Harvard where he studied philosophy, he moved to New York City to study at the Arts Student League.


Fairfield Porter has said that those who influenced his art the most were the French Impressionists: Edouard Veuillard and Pierre Bonnard. Porter saw in Veuillard’s paintings images of French domestic interiors with out the fine detail found in more Renaissance and classical art. He also appreciated Veuillard for his talent to paint some physical details without losing sight of the composition as a whole referring to Veuillard as the “abstract impressionist”.

Impressionists , as Porter thought and wrote about in the 1930’s, were very much engaged with societal changes in the US and abroad. The industrialization of Europe led to the demise of artist
guilds but the rise of factories. With this loss of the guilds, Knowledge of the craft of painting and the arts declined. The communal aspect of learning was important for the transmission of this knowledge. So what occurs is a starting from scratch mentality. The Impressionists were amateurs becoming professionals. This situation led to much of the criticism against these artists who abandoned or found inaccessible the classical Renaissance traditions of art. Also Fairfield Porter thought differently from Seurat on how important knowing the physics of light was rather than painters understanding :
“the nature of pigment in the representation of vision”.
Modelling as a method of creating form was much less important to Porter.

As a writer and critic for the “Art News Magazine” and ” The Nation”, his criticism of art was praised by contemporary artists like Larry Rivers and Alex Katz. Porter was early in recognizing the
promise in the art of Jasper Johns, Roy Lichtensein, and Bruce Marden. As a painter, his achievements included major group shows at the Museum of Modern Art in New York city and this museum also collects Porter’s paintings. He was reviewed by prominent journals as the Art Forum International Magazine, the New Yorker, and Art in America. Porter has donated 235 pieces of his art to the Parrish Art Museum of Long Island. His legacy resides in following the Realist tradition in art while mentoring younger artists as Eric Fischal through his words and paintings.

Fairfield Porter’s study with Jacques Maroger in the 1940’s provided him with the know-how of mixing a medium to be used with oil paints to make them more fluid. Maroger’s medium is well known among painters. It consists of toxic white lead heated with linseed oil and mastic, a natural resin, which then becomes a gel. Once the mix is taken off the heat source, it cools after as hour to the color of Italian coffee, after several more hours : the color of American coffee. When used with oil paints on canvas, Maroger medium is transparent, blended into the hue of the pigment.

Although Porter was meticulous in keeping records of painting recipes, his studio was kept in a style of creative liveliness with canvasses , paints, gels, easels, and brushes occupying its space.
Like Velazquez, Porter liked a “hands off” approach to nature and the portraits he painted. He also, emulated deKoonings style of keeping the painting process open and unrestricted, sometimes not even finishing the details on a painting. This adherence to the
Realist tradition coupled with the openness of Abstraction gave the art world a fresh view of portraiture and landscape painting by this Yankee American painter.

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Is the Ocean Blue?

Blue is a color which took  long time to come into existence and eventually gain the popularity which it has this day. When Homer wrote his epic poem the Iliad and the Odyssey, there was no “Blue yonder” but only an ocean filled with adventure described as the “ wine red sea”. According to a theory  by Hugo Magnus, the famous poet Homer and contemporaries could not yet see blue as a color but later as the human species evolved, their eyes could see blue. Language picked up the new perception and coined the word “blue”. Magnus was confusing the biological function of sight with perception which is created  by culture. So if Hugo was wrong , when and how did the sea become blue?

The history of color is huge and beyond pure science. Color naming is made by societies with their own words, languages and cultural perceptions. For example, in the European culture of the high middle ages, the colors of importance included red, white  and black. Green was added as a noun for vegetation and then last in place was blue. Skies in art works were painted red, white, or gold, not blue. Blue, however, played a role among the peasantry who wore clothes dyed with woad, which made the color of fabric slightly blue. This was a Germanic and Celtic tradition.

Christine de Pisan, professional writer who wrote in 1390: Book of the City of Ladies, about women in the Middle Ages.

By the 13th century, Pope Innocent III had gained singular authority over Church practices.In his papal decrees, he outlined the specific colors to be used for the Catholic mass. Blue was never mentioned but red, white and black were. However, in the stained glass windows of the 12th century churches, blue glass was used in the backgrounds to allow more light through the stained windows.

photo by Dominic Arizona Bonucelli, Rick Steve’s “Chartres Cathedral: The Age of Faith in Stone and Stained Glass.”

Finally, by the high medieval period, artists found an aesthetic role for blue. Mosaics and holy book illuminations of the early Christian era used blue often. By the Carolingian period of the 9th century, blue was used in miniature paintings, especially as a background color. The robes of the emperor and those of the Virgin Mary and the Saints were often painted in blue. The meaning here of blue became one of divine presence . As artistic technology improved, blue became less murky and was used to bring light and celestial illumination to a painting or stained glass window. While the aesthetic role of this color was more and more appreciated, many debates about the true nature of color intensified and continued on. These debates centered on the question of whether color was of matter or light. How the ocean became blue since the time of Homer’s epic remained unanswered. For interested readers, the story can be found in Michel Pastoureau book Blue…, which is one in a series he has written on various colors. These books are beautifully illustrated. Blue:The History of Color.

Catching up to modern times, the color blue connotes a general impression of calm, coolness, quiet and unassuming qualities. When blue is used in food, however, it suppressed the appetite. A shade of blue like dark blue connotes integrity, professionalism, and power while light blue suggest softness, healing and understanding. In relationships, blue has a calm, peace loving albeit distant sex appeal. People who like blue make good partners and are in control. Blue-eyed people have the second most eye color  and are believed to be tough and have stamina.

Two artists wearing blue: the one wearing dark blue expresses masculinity and the other wearing a light blue shirt expressing a more feminine color choice.

Blue is symbolic for masculinity so dark blue pants on men look especially fashionable. Women wear blue,too, just lighter and may be matched with a forest green, mint, white , or scarlet top. Blue is an outstanding logo color. It exudes reliability, stability, and trustworthy, intellectual qualities. One finds conservative corporations use blue frequently in their logos. Blue logos are found with technology and health industries,too. Indigo, a form of blue, speaks “new age” while bankers, lawyers, and educators like to use indigo. This indigo blue works well with magenta, turquoise, and emerald.  For color blind readers, it may be good to know that using the contrast colors of : black and white; or yellow and blue create greater readability for this particular audience.

“Birds and humans prefer blue because of the color’s association with all things pure”.

                     William Henry Hudson, Birds and Man

Lastly, colors have different meanings depending upon where they are used geographically throughout the world. As mentioned previously, in the US blue symbolizes masculinity for the most part while in China, blue symbolizes “the feminine”. For Hindus, blue represents immortality and Krishna. For the Ukrainians, blue means healing and in Turkey, Greece, and Albania, blue will repel evil.


  1. Michel Pastoureau, Blue: The History of Color, 2001,Princeton University Press

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Thanksgiving USA 2018

Turkey trot in Cambridge,MA 2018

Thanksgiving is a time of feasting and gathering of friends and family  to celebrate the bounty of this country and its future promise for all.

This autumn, as I was visiting Cambridge, MA.and walking in the neighborhood, two turkeys,male and female, were also walking in the street and then along a sidewalk. Naturally, I wanted to catch up with them and we walked along for a block or two . Astonishingly, they seemed to have no fear of cars or humans. At one point , I thought the turkeys would follow me back to where I was staying or maybe get lost.  So I walked ahead, looked back at Mr. and Mrs. Turkey, and then continued my way back to my lodgings. Oddly enough, these turkeys also stopped and then turned back and trotted on home.  All this is to suggest that a Thanksgiving meal does not have to include turkey meat. See the link below for some scrumptious recipes from the New York Times food section, that  are vegetarian.  Enjoy!

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Autumn Landscape with a Flock of Turkeys, Jean-Francois Millet, 1872-73, oil on canvas,collection of Mr.and Mrs.Isaac D.Fletcher, Gallery802, TheMetFifthAve.

New York Times :   Vegan Thanksgiving Recipes


Turkey in the street, photo by Beth Inglis