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What to make of retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor? Pioneer, cowgirl, schoolmarm, swing voter. A judge who is bold, fretful, a waffler, moderate, conservative, liberal, tough, caring, a gentlelady in a man’s world — all these descriptions have been used to paint a verbal portrait of the nation’s first female justice. A fascinating exhibit at the National Portrait Gallery in D.C. demonstrates that the same rainbow of interpretations confronts real portrait painters as well. Twenty-five artists, members of an artists’ collective called the Painting Group in New York City, painted portraits of O’Connor during two three-hour sittings last October, and the results — in charcoal, pastels, watercolor, and oil — are on display at the recently reopened gallery. Founders of the group, which has met regularly since the late 1950s, are portraitist Aaron Shikler and David Levine, the noted caricaturist for the New York Review of Books. Usually the group’s subjects pose in the nude, but O’Connor is not that much of a pioneer. She sat instead in her traditional Supreme Court robe, complete with a ruffle at the neck. The robe and the ruffle are just about the only characteristics shared by all the works on display. The results run the gamut from impressionist, bordering on abstract, to the nearly photographic. To be honest, I’m not sure any of the artists captured her essence or core. I’ve never known O’Connor well, but I’ve watched her on the bench since she became a justice in 1981, and met her at occasional social gatherings or conferences. Last fall, I had the memorable experience of sitting at the same dinner table with O’Connor as she sat next to billionaire Warren Buffett. Buffett, himself an unpretentious man, did not awe O’Connor in the slightest. She had an impish smile, and her demeanor was down-home and plain-spoken, with only an occasional moment of formality. On her family’s ranch in Arizona, O’Connor grew up amidst rough-and-ready cowboys, and she has spoken about how that prepared her for life in a man’s world. A true portrait of O’Connor would draw out that cowgirl adaptability. Among the portraits on exhibit, David Levine’s own caricature shows a blurry, washed-out, unflattering O’Connor, as if she is about to melt away. Irene Hecht’s portrait of O’Connor is a pleasing impressionist view, showing the justice as a proud woman. Walter Bernard’s is blandly one-dimensional, drawing O’Connor with a somewhat sour — though not altogether uncharacteristic — expression on her face. In Jean Marcellino’s oil rendition, O’Connor strikes a more resigned, slumped-back stance, which is not the way most people know her. And there’s something not quite right about the nose. Gil Eisner’s portrait has a syrupy background — a Western sunset that was not likely visible from the group’s New York City studio — but it may come closest to capturing O’Connor. She has a twinkle in her clear eyes in Eisner’s rendition, and an elegant bearing. But he offers a hint of the strong, suffer-no-fools expression that she often displays. Shikler’s pastel portrait also comes close, showing an O’Connor at once noble and no-nonsense. The show runs through October, and is worth a visit — along with the rest of this unique museum, part of the Smithsonian Institution. In the room with the portraits of O’Connor is a video screen playing an amusing short documentary about O’Connor’s experience sitting for the artists. She seems to be talking nonstop while the artists paint. CBS News’ Sunday Morning show also ran a segment recently on the exhibit. When asked what she thought of the portraits, O’Connor replied characteristically, without much sugar-coating: “Well, different strokes for different folks.”
Tony Mauro can be contacted at [email protected].

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