In 1856 Senator Andrew P. Butler of South Carolina introduced a resolution instructing the Joint Committee on the Library to “inquire into the propriety of procuring a bust in marble of the late Chief Justice John Rutledge, to be executed by an American artist of merit and reputation, and to be placed in the room of the Supreme Court of the United States, in a position corresponding with those of the busts of Chief Justices Jay, Ellsworth, and Marshall.”  Butler argued that although Rutledge’s appointment had not been confirmed by the Senate, Rutledge had, in fact, served as chief justice of the United States. After favorable review by the committee, the Senate the same year passed a bill providing for acquisition of a bust of Rutledge and appropriating $800, a considerable sum, for the work. To execute the bust of the second chief justice, the Joint Committee on the Library selected the young Virginia sculptor Alexander Galt.
A native of Norfolk, Galt was a self-taught carver of cameos and a portrait painter. He sailed to Italy in 1848 and in Florence received instruction from the American sculptors already active there. He modeled some ideal figures, such as Bacchante, now in the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.; Sappho, an ancient poetess; and Virginia, an allegorical image, in honor of his birthplace. Returning to America in early 1854, he quickly became popular among the Southern gentility as a portrait painter, but his principal commission, from the Virginia state legislature in February 1854, was a full-length statue of Thomas Jefferson. Soon housed in Jefferson’s rotunda at the University of Virginia, where it has remained, it is certainly the best known, if not the best, of Galt’s extant works. However, the latter distinction may belong to Galt’s bust of John Rutledge.
Depending upon unspecified paintings to model a likeness of the long-deceased Rutledge, Galt succeeded in producing a dignified and sympathetic portrait. The facial expression is reserved but genial, realistic, and accessible, despite the neoclassical blank eyes. The figure is endowed with an appropriate formality by a straightforward disposition of masses: the broad, weighty coat and robe, the sharp clarity of the ruffled shirt, and the doughy density of the swept-back hair (where the original modeling in clay is clearly felt).
The plaster cast of this clay model, along with his cast of Jefferson, accompanied Galt on his second voyage to Italy. Back in Florence, he translated his models into marble. In April 1858 Galt wrote from Italy that the completed bust had been shipped to Washington.
Galt returned to America in 1860, established a studio in Richmond, Virginia, and continued his career during the Civil War by producing portraits of Southern notables, including the president of the Confederacy, Jefferson Davis. His brief, promising career ended when he contracted smallpox in the camp of Stonewall Jackson where he was preparing studies for a portrait of the general. He died early in 1863. His legacy was further diminished the same year by the destruction of much of his work in a warehouse fire.
Galt’s bust of Rutledge, however, remains a testament to the artist’s skill. In 1858, more than 60 years after Rutledge’s brief term of service, the bust of the second chief justice joined those of others with that title in the U.S. Capitol’s Supreme Court Chamber. The Supreme Court of the United States–which moved from the Capitol to a building of its own in 1935–replicated the Rutledge bust for its collection in 1976.
1. Congressional Globe (6 February 1856) 34th Cong., 1st sess., 364.