The Four Justices

The Four Justices, by Norman Shanks

The first four female Supreme Court justices–Sandra Day O’Connor, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor, and Elena Kagan–are depicted in a gorgeous new group portrait, called The Four Justices, by Norman Shanks. The portrait is on loan to the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery for three years.

The first thing I love about this painting is its depiction of Justice Ginsburg, she of the fierce steeliness that radiates from the canvas. “Skim milk marriage“, indeed!

Next is the composition. The artist and others have suggested that this painting will be a touchstone for young girls, with the aspirational message that anything is possible. For me, the negative space is equal to the subject matter in broadcasting that message. Think of typical portraits of justices and attorneys, and you might think of floor-to-ceiling law books behind the subject, who is seated behind a desk.

In this portrait, instead of that claustrophobic wall of law journals, we see lots of light and space. There is no desk in front of the justices, nothing to physically pen them in. The mirror on the wall behind the justices reflects the rest of the room back to us, making the space seem even bigger. In the mirror, we can glimpse a chandelier hanging from the ceiling. On the right of the painting, we can see out a window, overlooking a sort of courtyard where two wings of the building intersect. An additional six windows, three facing us and three facing toward our left, can also be seen. Best of all is the slice of blue sky that grows slightly bigger as it reaches toward the viewer. This is a portrait that is about the environment, as much as it is about the figures in it. Light sources like the chandelier and the sky are symbolically enlightening. There are many viewpoints, literally, contained within this work: the viewer can look left and right within the room, use the mirror to look behind, use the window to look out. The viewer can try to look into the windows straight ahead and on the right, and can also look up into the blue patch of sky.

Curious eyes, maybe those belonging to young girls with ambition, can probe in and around the room, out the window, into the building next door, even as high as the sky. What an uplifting, contemporary take on this group portrait.