“The Four Justices” Puts Women Trailblazers on Display

Associate Justice Elena Kagan Investiture CeremonyOn Monday a portrait of the four women Justices of the Supreme Court of the United States of America was revealed. The  life-sized likenesses of Sandra Day O’Connor, Sonia Sotomayor, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Elena Kagan are on display at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery in D. C. A closeup photo of the portrait can be seen here.

The nearly 9 1/2-by-8-foot oil portrait “The Four Justices” shows veteran Justices O’Connor and Ginsburg seated and the more recently appointed Justices Kagan and Sotomayor standing behind them. The neckwear and facial expressions of the four Justices varies slightly according to their preferences; some, like Ginsburg, appear somber while others, like Kagan, wear faint smiles. The Justices sat for portrait artist Nelson Shanks for many hours last year, in a sitting that the 75-year-old artist described as “semi-controlled chaos” because the women were talking and joking with each other throughout.

Museum director Kim Sajet said,

I imagine this portrait will spark a conversation among young people, particularly young women, about breaking barriers.

When you take a moment to appreciate this piece of art, you may find yourself thinking about the fact that you could barely squeeze all the men who have been justices of the Supreme Court into one portrait. That being said, Shanks’ work does far more than just represent our past and present trailblazers: It inspires future generations of women to pursue careers in law. Art collectors (and abortion-rights supporters)Ian and Annette Cumming commissioned and own the portrait, but it will be on loan to the National Gallery for the next three years.

Photo of O’Connor, Sotomayor, Ginsburg and Kagan courtesy of Flickr user Talk Radio News Service via Creative Commons


Melissa McGlensey recently graduated from the University of Oregon with a B.A. in English and Spanish with a minor in creative writing; she is currently interning at Ms.




  1. I just took a look at the painting. Is it just me or does the allusion to extra space around the current and past justices point towards future female appointees. I think the portrait is a great representative of past, present, and hopefully future.

  2. To quote the above: “Shanks’ work does far more than just represent our past and present trailblazers. It inspires future generations of women to pursue careers in law.” Well, it certainly won’t inspire future generations of women to pursue careers in art!
    I realize that the benefactors may have a relationship with Mr. Shanks, and I realize as well that he has a stellar reputation. However, since the purpose of this portrait is to single out the “women” of the supreme court, I am more than disappointed that a man was chosen as the artist. How many women painters are represented in the National Portrait Gallery? Given the very nature of this commission, couldn’t a competent woman have been found? (Various comments on the linked page were critical of the likenesses and the general composition.)
    I would give this article more credibility, especially in Ms Magazine, if that glaring “detail” had been pointed out. Oh, and yes, I’m an artist who happens to be a woman.

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