The Challenge of Judicial Portraits by Artist Michele Rushworth
By Portraits, Inc. artist Michele Rushworth
There's a wide variety of portrait paintings in the world. But when it comes to following certain norms and conventions, perhaps no sub-genre of portraiture presents the artist with more creative constraints than judicial portraits. The tradition of portraits of judges dates back to before the founding of the United States. And when it comes to portraits, the legal field is not known for, well, thinking outside the box.
For one thing, virtually every judge prefers to be painted wearing his or her robe. And when it comes to judicial robes, perhaps Henry Ford said it best: "You can have any color you want, so long as it's black." Most judges request to have the American flag featured somewhere in the painting. And if there's an American flag, it must appear on the judge's right side - NEVER left. Why? It's a part of American flag etiquette that goes back well over a century.
So how to paint an interesting portrait when confronted with stylistic limitations? It's not easy. But I enjoy the challenge. My goal with every judicial portrait is to find that critical balance of gravitas and dignity on the one hand and a sense of warmth and the person's inner humanity on the other.
Another factor to be mindful of is that most judicial paintings are hung in courtroom settings, typically rather high up on the walls, so they are usually viewed from a distance. So, I need to make sure the paintings don't have tiny details that will be lost from the normal viewing vantage point.
I've had the great honor of painting portraits of many judges in the federal court system, as well as at the state supreme court level. The key to a successful judicial portrait is to present the judge with the appropriate respect and dignity that should be afforded to such an important role within our society, and at the same time, to make sure their personal character and individuality come through in the final portrait.
Below you can see a few judicial portraits I've done. Pictured below, from left to right: Top row: Judge Alan Johnson, U.S. District Court of Wyoming; Judge Carmen Ciparick, New York State Court of Appeals; Bottom row: Judge Theodore Jones, New York State Court of Appeals; Justice Joel Dubina, Chief Justice, U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, 11th Circuit.