Chief Justice John Marshall, the man who single-handedly shaped the constitutional role of the judicial branch of the U.S. government, was one of a kind. But his portrait in the U.S. Capitol? Not so much. The imposing painting, more than 10 feet tall, is based on an earlier Marshall portrait. It’s a painted copy. A copy of a copy of a copy, in fact.
The House of Representatives commissioned its portrait of John Marshall to honor the jurist as a former Representative from Virginia, and more importantly, as a major figure in American law. Marshall was appointed to the Supreme Court in 1801 and spent the next 34 years as Chief Justice. Through force of reason, energy, and effort, he established “judicial review,” which allows the Court to strike down laws it finds unconstitutional, affirmed the supremacy of the federal constitution over the states, defined the federal government’s role in regulating commerce, and laid down the basis for government relations with Native American tribes. Above all, Marshall made the judiciary an independent and influential part of American self-rule. Many times Marshall longed to retire and “read nothing but novels and poetry,” but his unique gifts and stature kept him on the bench. Even his demise in 1835 was matchless: The Liberty Bell cracked while tolling his death.
In 1880, the House hired Richard N. Brooke, a young Virginia artist, to immortalize Marshall for the Capitol. Brooke’s painting shows the Chief Justice in old age. The effects of age are plain on Marshall’s face, as are his statesmanlike calm and consideration. Billowing black robes give the judge bulk that stands up to the red curtain that spills down behind him. Marshall also wears his beloved knee-britches. He persisted in wearing them even after they went the way of powdered wigs and three-cornered hats. In this portrait, they anchor the image in the founding decades of the nation, and remind knowing viewers of Marshall’s quirks.
The Chief Justice is surrounded by allusions to his status in American history. A man of letters, he holds a scrolled sheaf of papers in his hand. Other papers and an inkwell await his attention on a green-draped table, and law books tumble at his feet. The seated Marshall and the desk are set on a regal podium, completing the image of a great leader and jurist. A column and wooden railing behind him echo the architecture of the Old Supreme Court chamber in the Capitol.
Brooke rendered his monumental vision of John Marshall with skill, but not a single element came from his own imagination. At the House’s direction, Brooke copied an 1859 painting hanging in the county courthouse in Warrenton, Virginia, where Marshall first practiced law. Luckily for Brooke, the artist of the Warrenton portrait was his first art teacher, William Washington. He was easily able to reproduce the enormous size and style of the original.
However, Washington’s portrait was not an original, either. He based his commission on an existing work. Just five years old when Marshall died, Washington never met his subject, much less drew him from life, so using a source image was his only option. For his Warrenton portrait, Washington worked from the best-known one. It was a popular engraving that showed the venerated Marshall in the last years of his storied career. The print itself was a copy based on Henry Inman’s 1831 portrait. Inman had a printing partnership with engraver Cephas Childs, and before the painting was even finished, they planned to sell reproductions. Washington may also have seen Inman’s Marshall portrait in Richmond, at the Chief Justice’s family home. Strikingly, even Inman’s source material was a copy made for Marshall after he finished the true original painting, commissioned by a group of admiring lawyers in Philadelphia.
From Philadelphia to Richmond to the engraver’s shop to Warrenton and finally to the Capitol, Marshall’s face appeared again and again. In every instance, however, the purpose of repeating the same image was clear. Marshall’s towering achievements and influence put a lasting stamp on the nation. His work also fundamentally changed the Judiciary’s relations with the institution that honored him with a portrait. One contemporary in the House, Henry Bryan of North Carolina, captured Congress’s respect for Marshall when he opined that while the legislative branch might not always agree with Marshall, “yet none can doubt the strength and depth and clearness of his mind, or the uprightness, integrity, and purity of the judge.”
Sources: Richard N. Brooke, Record of Work, Brooke manuscripts. Smithsonian Institution Libraries, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.; Kermit L. Hall and John J. Patrick, The Pursuit of Justice: Supreme Court Decisions that Shaped America (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006); Andrew Oliver, The Portraits of John Marshall (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1977); Jean Edward Smith et al., The Face of Justice: Portraits of John Marshall (Huntington, West Virginia: Huntington Museum of Art, 2001); Charles Warren, The Supreme Court in U.S. History, Vol. I, 1781-1821 (Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 1922).