Oliver Wendell Holmes’ Lunch Bucket

“The paintings first must be historically important.” says Frederick Voss, curator of “Portraits of the American Law,” when he is asked if artistic merit ruled the selection.

At first glance, historical importance seemed to be the exhibit’s only criterion. The pictures hang in chronological order, and the earliest works lack, for me, immediate appeal. Aside from a few genre paintings — Mary Franklin’s “A Class at the University of Pennsylvania Law School” comes to mind — my first impression was of being set adrift on a not very interesting sea of white men in robes.

The exhibit picks up considerably as it enters the 20th century. A luminous, almost velvety, courtroom scene by Thomas Hart Benton is alone worth a trip to the Portrait Gallery. In a portrait of Learned Hand, the animated brushstrokes of Gardner Cox are wonderful. And the mixed media courtroom drawings by Hank Virgona are gestural and rich with texture. My favorite painting is Charles Sydney Hopkinson’s portrait of Joseph Henry Beale, which escapes the stiff formality and idealization of many of the earlier works on display. This is achieved through the use of dramatic composition and lighting and a directness of pose that engages the viewer.

This picture is such a standout, I was surprised to learn that the large, garish painting of Oliver Wendell Holmes on the opposite wall was crafted by the same artist. The face and hands are well-executed, but the posture is unimaginative, and Holmes is surrounded by a bilious green corona. When questioned about Hopkinson’s stylistic inconsistency, curator Voss suggested that perhaps he was intimiated by knowing that the painting was to hang in a Harvard Law reading room across from the portrait of the venerable John Marshall. At any rate, it looks as if it’s straining to be “official.”

Near this monstrosity is a showcase containing Oliver Wendell Holmes’ lunch pail, originally a painted ammunition box. The object has the look of something taken very seriously by its owner. By comparison the typical lunch box looks about as substantial as a beaded evening bag. All sorts of questions came to mind: Did Holmes’ fellow justices also tote lunch buckets? If so, what was in them? Did other Supreme Court justices walk around the District carrying their lunches in ammo boxes? Were there no decent restaurants in D.C. back then?

Haunted by these questions, I consulted the catalog. While not one of these concerns was addressed, enough historical tidbits were included to make a return trip to the earlier galleries more enlightening.

The aforementioned painting of John Marshall had first struck me as competently executed, but essentially boring. Turning to the catalog, I learned that the knee breeches worn by Marshall in the portrait had been out of style for years. Not only that, but contemporaries always described his clothes as looking secondhand.

Displayed next to the painting was a letter from Marshall to his wife, Polly, relating the hazards of riding circuit. He complained that he’d lost 15 silver dollars in the sands of Carolina. To make matters worse, he failed to bring along his good pants and couldn’t find a tailor to sew a new pair. If John Marshall were alive today, he might have trouble locating his car keys. There’s something comforting in learning of the human failings of a brilliant legal mind.

Anoher well-known figure from the so-called Golden Age of American Law is Daniel Webster, represented in this exhibit by a dramatic, brooding portrait by Francis Alexander. Webster evidently approved of this romantic view, since he commissioned the work, which is a copy of Alexander’s painting that hangs at Dartmouth College. In Webster’s day, trials were a favorite spectator sport. A skilled orator commanded the same admiration that a star athlete might today. In fact, prints of charismatic antebellum legal figures often decorated private homes. For that purpose, Webster chose more staid depictions than the Byronic entry in this exhibit.

Background information also enhances the more recent art. The masterfully detaled tempera and ink portrit of Hugo Black, for example, seems even more impressive when the viewer undertands what Robert Vickrey endured while creating it. Black’s wife kept a constant eye on the progress of the painting and grew agitated whenever Vickery depicted Black with any sign of ageing. Hugo Black was 78 at the time.

While all the figures depicted were larger than life, their idiosyncrasies were the most interesting. And a conversation with Voss supplied one missing detail I’d been hoping for. Sure enough, he had a tale to tell about Oliver Wendell Holmes lunch bucket, one I hope isn’t apocryphal. Holmes often walked to work. On those days, he had his lunch pail delivered to the Supreme Court by his chaffeur.

Karen Peacock
Legal Times