On October 28, 2013, the National Portrait Gallery celebrated the arrival of Nelson Shanks’s The Four Justices, a tribute to the four female justices who have served on the U.S. Supreme Court. The work is monumental; it measures approximately seven feet by five-and-a-half feet (in its custom-made frame it is almost nine-and-a-half feet by eight feet) and holds the west wall of the National Historic Landmark Building’s second-floor rotunda. Of the work, NPG Chief Curator Brandon Fortune noted, “The National Portrait Gallery is honored to have such an ambitious group portrait on loan to the museum.”
The work is based on sittings the justices had with Shanks; the two senior justices are seated and the recent appointees standing. Although the logistics of bringing three active and one retired justice into his studio was challenging, Shanks prefers to draw from life, which he feels brings each sitter’s distinct presence into his work. “If you can imagine a painting—no matter how facile—that doesn’t show character, something is missing,” Shanks noted in an interview with NPG. “Representation of character is really what counts to me.”
Only men had sat on the bench of the Supreme Court until President Ronald Reagan appointed Sandra Day O’Connor in 1981. After O’Connor, the next woman to receive an appointment was Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a nominee of President Bill Clinton in 1993. President Barack Obama appointed Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan. Ginsburg, Sotomayor, and Kagan are still on the bench; O’Connor retired in 2006.
Shanks’s oil on canvas painting is on loan to the National Portrait Gallery from Ian and Annette Cumming; they have also loaned their portrait of mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves by Shanks to NPG. Shanks is also responsible for two presidential portraits in the Portrait Gallery’s permanent collection: one of President Reagan created in 1989, and one of President Clinton painted in 2005.
—Warren Perry, Catalog of American Portraits, National Portrait Gallery
Artist Nelson Shanks speaking about his work. Photo by Warren Perry, National Portrait Gallery.