Artist Michael Deas said that the most time-consuming part of his portrait of the late Ruth Bader Ginsburg was her signature “dissent” collar. The Supreme Court justice, who died in 2020, accessorized her somber robes with distinctive, decorative neckwear. She’s said to have worn the most striking designs to signal that she planned to disagree with the majority of her fellow justices.
Deas’ portrait of Ginsburg was commissioned by the U.S. Postal Service and is destined to become a postage stamp. It will be the 25th stamp that Deas has designed.
To be sure he got the collar just right, the U.S. Postal Service arranged for a European designer to deliver a replica of one of Ginsberg’s signature collars to Deas’ French Quarter studio. He was surprised to discover that the lacy design was composed of tiny beads.
Deas said his girlfriend modeled the replica collar while he sketched.
In Deas’ warm, intimate portrait, Ginsburg seems to lean toward the viewer, with the slightest smile rising on her cheeks, as if she were considering sharing some pithy observation.
Deas said the tone of the painting was mostly determined by a photograph by Philip Bermingham that he used as a model. The photo was a favorite of Ginsberg’s family, Deas said. In an early sketch that Deas drew using other sources, the country’s second female Supreme Court justice seems more distant and has a more severe expression.
Deas is certainly one of New Orleans most accomplished, acclaimed artists. His works are extraordinarily high profile.
Deas has painted several Time magazine cover portraits and the cover of the 25th-anniversary edition of Anne Rice’s blockbuster novel “Interview with the Vampire.” He’s currently working on a portrait of Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, which will hang in the state’s capitol.
The subjects of his postage stamp portraits include such iconic figures as Lewis and Clark, Marilyn Monroe, James Dean and George H.W. Bush. Deas’ first stamp depicted the New Orleans-loving playwright Tennessee Williams.
But of all of Deas’ paintings, the best-known is his dramatic 1991 illustration of a goddess holding aloft a luminous torch. Anyone who’s been to the movies has seen it. “The Lady,” as the image is known, appears on the silver screen before all Columbia Pictures productions.
Few moviegoers would suspect that the goddess has a New Orleans connection, but she does. The woman in the painting was not modeled on actress Annette Bening, as sometimes supposed. The model was a Times-Picayune page designer named Jenny Joseph, who posed holding a table lamp overhead.
Deas was born in Norfolk, Virginia, and grew up on Long Island, New York. He spent summers in his dad’s hometown, New Orleans, where he settled permanently in 1988.
As a kid, Deas discovered he could draw, and by the time he was 19, he was already professionally producing illustrations. In the 1970s, he attended the prestigious, private Pratt Institute in New York. But, he said, at the time pure abstraction and conceptual art were all the rage in art classes, with little emphasis on the sort of traditional, realistic painting that interested him.
If his fellow art students modeled themselves on contemporaries like Rauschenberg and Warhol, Deas’ heroes were Ingres and Rembrandt.
Deas’ old-school methods may have been out of step with popular trends, but he found there was still demand for the sort of exacting realism he was able to produce. Deas said he works slowly, sometimes in the wee hours when his neighborhood, the French Quarter, is at its quietest.
Deas said it was a thrill to be asked to produce the Ginsburg portrait, because “she’s such a pivotal figure in the history of the Supreme Court.” The painting, he said, may have particular resonance because the Supreme Court is “such a lightning rod right now.”
Deas tries to keep his artistry and his personal convictions separate. “To me, a portrait is an assignment,” he said. “Portrait painters like Sargent and Holbein were paid to paint a person, not to like them. I just try to make the best painting possible.”
Though, he said, “there are certain people I would not paint.”
According to the post office website, the Ginsburg stamp will be released in 2023.