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.
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.
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.
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 https://youtu.be/MoYOWZWq4TE