BY SHEILA FARR AND CHIEF JUSTICE STEVEN C. GONZÁLEZ
In April 1914, while construction was underway on the Temple of Justice in Olympia, the Washington State Bar Association commissioned a Seattle artist to paint portraits of three of the state’s first Supreme Court justices. A year later, when the paintings were installed at the Temple of Justice, which was still a brick building with no stone cladding, The Seattle Daily Times reported the unveiling of the portraits.
So why, a century later, should this still be news?
Until recently, the history of those portraits—how and when they were acquired, who commissioned and paid for them, and even the name of the artist who painted them—was lost. Due in part to the separation of powers among the branches of government and chronic underfunding of the judicial branch, the Temple of Justice had no system in place for inventorying, tracking, and maintaining its art collection. No judicial branch employee is tasked with maintaining a history of the building and its historically significant contents. The Washington State Arts Commission does not oversee historic artworks installed at the judicial branch and no other state entity appeared to have a record of the works.
The forgotten history of these three portraits represents the tip of a broader problem. At the Temple of Justice alone, several of the portraits on display have unknown origins. Some are admiring portraits of unidentified subjects. We have no way of knowing how many other important historical artworks and artifacts might be hanging or stored at courthouses around the state, unidentified or damaged, or how many have been lost.
During the past 10 years, the Supreme Court has acquired five new portraits to honor groundbreaking justices of color, beginning with the late Justice Charles Z. Smith, the first person of color to serve on the court. Justice Smith, who retired in 2002, was the son of a Cuban father and a Black mother. His portrait, commissioned from renowned artist Alfredo Arreguín, provided a serious and beautiful departure from the severe, traditional style of previous court portraits. Arreguín’s portrait added color and light to the lineup of dark, formally posed pictures that hang in a hallway at the Temple of Justice. It was an important first step toward creating new representations for a supreme court that has become the most diverse in the nation, with seven women and two men, of multiple racial and cultural backgrounds. The portrait was commissioned by Chief Justice Steven González and was funded by many donors, including the Loren Miller Bar Association and the Latina/o Bar Association of Washington. A copy of Justice Smith’s portrait hangs at the University of Washington Law School, where Justice Smith once served as an associate dean.
Seattle University Law School and others recently commissioned Arreguín to paint a portrait of Justice Mary Yu—the first Latina, first Chinese-American, and first openly gay justice to serve on the court. A scholarship for women of color has been established in Justice Yu’s name at SU Law, where a copy of her portrait hangs. The Supreme Court itself commissioned Arreguín to paint a portrait of Chief Justice Steven González, the first person of color to hold that position. Chief Justice González personally commissioned and donated two more portraits by University of California, Berkeley, law student and artist Ximena Velázquez-Arenas, of Justice Raquel Montoya-Lewis, the first Native American, and Justice G. Helen Whitener, the first African American woman, to serve on the court. The portrait of Justice Montoya Lewis includes references in pattern, color, and musical instruments to her Pueblo of Isleta and Pueblo Laguna roots. The portrait of Justice Whitener includes the chaconia, the national flower of her native Trinidad and Tobago. The dedication and installation of these portraits has been delayed by the pandemic, however.
The addition of the Arreguín portraits brought renewed attention to the art collection at the Temple of Justice. Arreguín is internationally acclaimed for his densely patterned, vividly colored paintings, and his work hangs at the National Portrait Gallery and the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C. Born in 1935 in Morelia, Michoacán, Arreguín moved to Seattle in 1956 and earned a Master of Fine Arts degree at the University of Washington. His signature style blends elements of Mexican folk art with contemporary subject matter. In addition to commemorating significant justices, the new paintings can also be appreciated in themselves, as vibrant and valuable artworks.
Preserving Court History
With the court’s new acquisitions came an effort to identify and label the historical portraits that have been hanging, mostly overlooked, throughout the 20th century. Our first clue came from that old Seattle Times article about portraits purchased by the Bar Association back in 1914. Those portraits of Justices Ralph O. Dunbar (who served on the court from 1880-1902), Thomas J. Anders (who served on the court from 1889-1905), and James Reavis (who served on the court from 1897-1905) were commissioned for the price of $1,100. And it turns out that the long-unacknowledged artist was a woman: Ella Shepard Bush (1863-1948), a highly respected early Seattle portrait painter and miniaturist. For a supreme court that remained a stronghold of white males for nearly a century, this is news worth celebrating.
Bush trained at the top academies of her day, the Corcoran School of Art in Washington, D.C., and the Art Students League, New York, where she became a lifetime member. She also studied with renowned American painter Robert Henri. After moving to Seattle in 1887, she opened a studio and art school on 3rd Avenue. Her students included the artist Roi Partridge (1888-1984), husband of renowned photographer Imogen Cunningham (1883-1976), and University of Washington professor Frederick Morgan Padelford (1875-1942).
At the Temple of Justice, two of Bush’s portraits, of Justices Dunbar and Anders, hang in a public reception area that once served as a second courtroom outside the chief justice’s office. The portrait of Justice Reavis hangs in a group of nine other historical portraits in an upstairs hallway. Some of those portraits are labeled with the name of the subject, but the artists previously were not known or acknowledged. We are still trying to determine when and how many of the paintings were acquired, and confirm whom they depict.
However, with initial help from David Martin, a specialist in early Northwest art, we have been able to identify some of the artists. For example, we know that Samuel Armstrong (1893-1977) painted the portrait of Justice Walter French (who served 1927-1930). Armstrong studied art in Philadelphia and New York, and then lived in Tacoma from 1918 until the 1930s. He ran an art school and served as art editor for the Tacoma News Tribune before moving to Southern California. There he worked at the Walt Disney Studios as an animator on the movie Fantasia, and as an illustrator for Sunset magazine and children’s books.
The Hungarian-born artist Morris Spielberger (1890-1950) was chosen to paint Justice John R. Mitchell, who served on the court from 1918-1937. Spielberger immigrated to Chicago as a child with his family and later studied art at the Chicago Art Institute and in Paris academies. He moved to Seattle in the 1920s, possibly attracted by the vibrant arts scene at the Cornish School, where he established a studio. Known for portraiture and street scenes, Spielberger painted under the pseudonym Neale Ordayne to avoid anti-Semitism.
Seattle artist Jeanie Walter Walkinshaw (1885-1976) painted another portrait in the hallway, of Frederick Bausman (1861-1931), who served briefly on the court. Walkinshaw’s inclusion is no surprise: a well-known portrait artist of the early to mid-20th century, she was closely connected to the legal community through her family. Her work was exhibited widely, from the Seattle Art Museum to the Paris Salon, and she created illustrations for the book On Puget Sound, written by her husband, attorney Robert Walkinshaw. Their son, Walter (1917-2010), was a partner in the firm Riddell, Williams, Bullitt and Walkinshaw.
Most recently, we identified the subject of one previously unknown portrait. It turns out that the slightly disheveled, white-bearded gentleman, whose image is wrapped in an ornate gold frame, was the territorial judge and U.S. Congressman Obadiah B. McFadden (1815-1875). McFadden’s log house reportedly still stands in Centralia and is said to be the oldest continuously occupied residence in the state. It was completed in 1859, while McFadden served as chief justice.
In the course of our research into paintings at the Temple of Justice, we found that the work of artist Ella Shepard Bush reaches into other Washington courthouses as well. In the early 20th century, she was the go-to artist to commemorate many prominent citizens, among them six superior court judges.
Those portraits, commissioned by the King County Bar Association, hung with others at the King County Courthouse throughout the 20th century. However, Superior Court Judge Jim Rogers reports that “a number of them were destroyed or lost in the 2014-16 time frame, in an unfortunate attempt to change what was displayed.” A portrait of Judge and Seattle Mayor Thomas Humes (1847-1904) was found, badly damaged, along with a portrait of Territorial Chief Justice, U.S. Rep., and Seattle Mayor Orange Jacobs (1827-1914). Another portrait by Bush, of Judge Isaac Lichtenberg, still exists, in poor condition and stripped of its valuable period frame. There was no inventory of the paintings, so we do not know how many are missing.
What can we do to prevent the loss and damage of other historic artworks held by the courts? What steps can be taken to ensure that the works are inventoried, their condition supervised, and the proper care maintained? What role can the Bar Association take?
The Supreme Court has begun the process internally, by photographing and inventorying all the artworks in the collection. In addition, the Department of Enterprise Services, which oversees some of the state’s properties, plans to keep a more robust and accessible database of artworks. Prompted by our research, the department’s new cultural and historic planner, Jeff MacDonald, is working to uncover old inventories, add to existing databases, and create more transparent systems for tracking the state’s valuable historical artifacts.
Arts professionals at the Washington State Arts Commission and 4Culture stand ready to assist administrators at other courthouses, offering advice and sharing policies on best practices. They recommend crafting an in-house policy statement for artworks, adding oversight of the collection to a job description, and training facilities staff in proper handling of paintings.
As a general rule, keeping the artworks on display is the best policy, says Janae Huber, collections manager at the Washington State Arts Commission. She cautions that “storage is an absolute risk point for us, a danger point.” Most of the irreparable damage and loss of artworks comes from not being properly wrapped, labeled, or securely stored in a climate-regulated place, she says. In cases where there are artworks that are no longer recognized or relevant to the court, they may still have historic or artistic importance. Rather than placing them in storage, those pieces could be housed at a history museum or archive, where they can be professionally cared for, researched, and re-contextualized.
The history of Washington state’s judicial system is relatively brief. Yet already important visual representatives of that history have been lost. The initial purchase price of a portrait is a meaningful gift, but only the first step toward preserving a legacy. As paintings age, they require professional evaluation and conservation to prevent damage by light, moisture, smoke, and other environmental stresses. There are costs involved with documentation, condition reports, and inventories, with conservation work and creating informative signage. It would be especially helpful if there were a biographical essay and artist information associated with each portrait, so that future generations could easily recognize the work’s significance. To ensure that this happens, the chief justice will work with leaders in the Bar, the Legislature, and the executive branch to identify reliable funds and a mechanism to preserve and enhance the art in our courthouses.
Portraits are windows into history. Properly documented and displayed, they help us understand our past and build a vibrant and inclusive future where everyone can see someone who looks like them honored in our courthouses. We must find a way to secure this legacy.