David Wells Roth
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Portrait of Judge Stearns - Metro West article
brush with the law: Framingham artist paints portrait of Federal Judge
Wearing a black robe, he gazes with a signature mix of formality and "approachability" in a striking new portrait by Framingham painter David Wells Roth.
Unveiled on May 18, the 54-by-46-inch oil painting was commissioned by three law clerks as part of a long-standing tradition that honors veteran judges for their service.
Stearns praised Roth for "capturing what I see in myself."
"I’m astonished by the technical skill David Roth brought to this painting," he said recently. "I think David managed to catch my seriousness of purpose without making me something I’m not: People might sometimes think there’s too much gravitas, that I’m too private and reserved."
Roth unveiled his portrait by pulling a black velvet cloth from it with help from the judge’s parents and wife in a 80-minute ceremony attended by FBI Director Robert Mueller. U.S. District Judge Douglas Woodlock accepted the painting for the Boston courthouse’s collection.
Raised in California, Stearns earned a Rhodes scholarship to Oxford University in England where he roomed with Bill Clinton, who became president 20 years later. Stearns presently sits on a variety of federal cases. He has oversight for the MWRA cleanup of Boston Harbor and serves as judicial adviser for Defense Department initiatives on counter-terrorism and non-proliferation of nuclear weapons.
The portrait was commissioned by Maria Raia Hamilton and Marsha Zierk, both career law clerks, and Gary Katz, the judge’s former law clerk who’s moved on to another job.
Stearns, 61, was appointed U.S. District Judge for Massachusetts in 1993, said Hamilton. He previously served as a superior court judge in the Bay State.
Over the course of two centuries, Stearns is one of 42 federal judges who served in Massachusetts, including 24 judges whose portraits now hang in the courthouse, according to research provided by Woodlock.
The oldest painting, an 1800 portrait, depicts Judge John Lowell who served from 1789 to 1801. Perhaps the best known painting by Edmund Tarbell portrays Judge James Madison Morton in 1930.
Roth completed Stearns’ portrait after the judge sat for him in his Fountain Street studio.
He depicted Stearns as an international jurist and man of broad cultural tastes against a backdrop of personal and professional possessions. In the portrait, Stearns looks directly at the viewer.
A Sudbury native who spent 15 years studying art in Paris, Roth favors a realistic style tinged with Impressionist touches that give his images a sense of straddling both worlds.
To suggest Stearns’ character, Roth included items from the judge’s chambers -- an Inuit sculpture, a Native-American pitcher with two spouts symbolizing marriage and a statue of Don Quixote, a gift from his mother representing his indomitable idealism. The portrait includes a view of Boston Harbor through the judge’s window.
Yet Roth revealed a crucial aspect of the judge’s private life by including in the portrait a photograph of his wife, Patricia "Patti" Stearns, which sits in his office.
Roth said he wanted to break the traditional mold of courthouse portraits by including personal objects from the judge’s life.
"Although it was supposed to be an official portrait, I wanted something different, more than the face of a judge but something that symbolized his life," he said.
After high school, Roth earned a scholarship to study painting at Boston University. He then painted on the streets of New York City and spent 15 years in Paris studying old masters like Rembrandt and Renoir.
He estimated he spent between 500 and 600 hours working on Stearns’ portrait from last November through Maythrough a combination of sketches, photographs and live sittings.
Roth was initially approached by the three clerks 18 months ago who learned of his painting through a mutual friend. He visited Stearns in court and had dinner with him and his wife to discuss the project.
For Roth, face-to-face sittings with Stearns in Fountain Street provided a critical "sense of his presence."
"I got a sense of his nature by getting to know him and talking with him. He’s an extremely deep and profound person," he said.
Roth described the long painting process as a roller coaster.
"I’d paint something, complete it and then change something else," he said.
Yet Roth said he struggled to capture an elusive duality in the judge’s nature.
"(Stearns) has an intelligent expression but he’s able to smile as if thinking of something funny," he said.
Roth and the clerks declined to cite the portrait’s cost.
After seeing the complete portrait for the first time, Stearns was struck by two seemingly unrelated details -- the exact depiction of his hands and the view of the harbor through his window.
"It’s hard to paint hands accurately. But when I saw the hands in the portrait, I’d recognize them anywhere," he said.
Recalling his years at Oxford, Stearns remembered Clinton as "the most natural politician I’d ever seen."
Even as a young man, Stearns was familiar with national politics. He’d already managed presidential candidate Eugene McCarthy’s Midwestern campaign.
"Within an hour of our meeting, I told people Bill Clinton would be president someday," he said.
Stearns said Roth’s painting breaks from the tradition of other portraits which don’t have a sense of place.
"I don’t have any illusions people will be interested in my judicial career 50 years from now. But if someone wanted a sense of what Boston looked like at the turn of the (21st) century, they should look at this portrait."
Since portraits are not hung in the courtroom where a judge sits, Stearns’ portrait now hangs in the U.S. District Judge Patti Saris’s court.
Hamilton said, "It’s a tradition in federal court for law clerks to commission a judge’s portrait by the time they reach senior status.
"When the portrait was first unveiled, I said ’Oh my God. It looks just like Judge Stearns,’" she recalled. "It truly captured the kindness in his face."
To learn more about David Wells Roth, visit www.dwroth.com