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Can You Identify the Judge in This Courthouse Portrait?

Officials of the John Adams Courthouse in Boston are asking the public for help in uncovering the identity of the anonymous jurist

Portrait of the unknown judge. (Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court)
smithsonian.com

Among the portraits of former justices that adorn the walls of Boston’s John Adams Courthouse is a painting of a middle-aged man clad in formal attire. For more than a decade, officials have been trying to figure out just who this man is—to no avail. Now officials are asking for the public’s help in identifying the mysterious subject of the painting.

As Travis Anderson reports for the Boston Globe, the work hangs outside the chambers of Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Ralph D. Gants, and it came to officials’ attention in 2005, when paintings were being rehung in the courthouse following a renovation. Clifford Allen, director of education and public programs for the court, tells Alanna Durkin Richer of the Associated Press that officials have been able to identify the subjects of every portrait in the courthouse except this one. Allen also notes that recent attempts to match the portrait to other works using the Google Arts and Culture App were unsuccessful.

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) was founded in 1692 as the Superior Court of Judicature; it is the oldest appellate court in continuous existence in the Western Hemisphere. In a statement provided to Anderson of the Globe, officials said that they think the anonymous jurist served on the SJC between 1780 and 1820. Chief Justice Gants tells the Durkin Richer of the AP that he believes the man was likely an associate justice; officials have ruled out the possibility of him being a chief justice. Aside from that, virtually nothing is known about the mystery judge—or about the artist behind the painting.

In the hopes of uncovering more information about the portrait, the court is soliciting the help of amateur sleuths. “I basically said, listen, if we have not been able to identify it, why don’t we set loose the public to see if they can put on their Sherlock Holmes’ hats and help us to track down who this elusive and mysterious justice is?” Gants tells Durkin Richer.

Already the court has received about 40 submissions from the public, according to Jennfer Donaue, the court's public information officer. Anyone with reliable information that leads to the identification of the portrait will be treated to a guided tour of the John Adams Courthouse, and will be invited to attend a ceremony in which Gants will place a plaque bearing the name of the justice on the portrait’s frame.

But like court officials, the public may find it difficult to unearth the identity of the anonymous gentleman. “I hate to say it, but a lot of these guys do look alike,” Robert J. Allison, a history professor at Suffolk University who specializes in the early American republic, tells Anderson of the Globe. Similarities between depictions of 17th- and 18th-century dignitaries have led to mix-ups in Massachusetts before. A statue at the State House, for instance, was believed for much of the 19th century to portray Samuel Adams. It was later revealed to be a depiction of George Washington.

About Brigit Katz

Brigit Katz is a freelance writer based in Toronto. Her work has appeared in a number of publications, including NYmag.com, Flavorwire and Tina Brown Media's Women in the World.

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