When Alton Tobey set about painting the signing of the U.S. Constitution, he was not exactly treading new ground. There had been at least nine previous printed depictions of the event.
"Howard Chandler painted the biggest (depiction of the signing)," said Tobey. "It's a nice painting, except, looking at it . . . I realized it was, in almost every detail, wrong."
"First of all, the color. I went down to Independence Hall (in Philadelphia) and saw what the tables were, the books, the candles, the inkwell, the position of the various elements, and decided that it was not authentic in one iota."
After conducting his own painstaking research through personal visits, books and articles, Tobey embarked on his own depiction, finishing in October (of 1987). He was selected and personally commissioned for the task early last year by then-Chief Justice of the United States Warren E. Burger. Burger was chairman of the Commission on the Bicentennial of the U. S. Constitution, and resigned from the Supreme Court last year to pursue the job full time.
The fruit of Tobey's labor has been reproduced en masse; 25,000 prints have gone out to high schools across the country. Fifty signed and numbered prints went out to each state in order of their signing of the Constitution, or in the order of their admission to the Union.
"Every painting has an emotional tone to it, whether people are aware of it or not. Having looked at it and realized that these men were 16 weeks working away at shaping this document," Tobey said he was sure the signing must have been approached with gravity.
"Other (paintings) have a kind of gaiety," he said. "It was hot that Sunday in Philadelphia," Tobey said. "They must have sweated, sweltered, discussed. . . .and they realized they would have to go back to their individual states and try to sell it" where, Tobey added, they might have expected to be greeted "with brickbats." More information on this mural can be found on the U.S. Library of Congress website.
Equal Justice Under Law
This 6-1/2 x 9-1/2 foot mural by Tobey, Equal Justice Under Law, is currently on display at Opperman House, the headquarters of The Supreme Court Historical Society in Washington D.C.
Painted in oil and acrylic paints on natural linen, the composition depicts the sixteen justices of the Supreme Court of the United States. The central portion of the painting contains an image of the front portico area of the Supreme Court Building with a seal of the Court superimposed over the area.
"Tobey spent three months creating Equal Justice Under Law., initially reading a history of the Supreme Court. 'It was a re-reading of American History,' he said. 'All the important issues came before the Court.' He based his portraits of early justices on pictures hung in the Supreme Court building, as well as on material found in court archives. Photographs of all but the first four Chief Justices aided the process.
"The work's symmetry -- four justices each on the mural's top, bottom and sides, with the vertical columns of the Supreme Court's facade in the center -- does not reflect Mr. Tobey's perception of Mr. Burger as one of 'the best' Chief Justices nor of John Marshall (who presided from 1801 to 1835) as one of the most significant.
" 'In a sense, the Supreme Court as we know it today began with Marshall,' Tobey said. He said that the Supreme Court would be the final arbiter of the Constitution.
"The background color of each portrait is a clue to the painter's feelings about his subjects. The space behind Mr. Burger is a warm red, for example, while that surrounding Mr. Renhquist is gray. This 'hidden storytelling' -- as the painter called it -- is one of the few subjective touches in a work that Mr. Tobey said he intended to be 'essentially a teaching device'." The complete feature article on the painting was published in the August 6, 1989 issue of The New York Times.
--- quotes from the New York Times feature interview with Tobey 8/6/89
The mural above is another painting that Tobey did featuring The United States Supreme Court as his subject. In the future we will be adding many more of these paintings of a historical nature. If you are interested in being notified when our site is periodically updated, please email us.