History In Ink®  Historical Autographs


Stephen J. Field

Exceptional cabinet card portrait of Justice Field,

President Abraham Lincoln’s longest-serving appointee

Stephen Johnson Field, 1816–1899.  Associate Justice, Supreme Court of the United States, 1863–1897.  Gilt-edged cabinet card portrait photograph, 4¼” x 6½”, signed Stephen J. Field as Associate Justice. 

This is a beautiful portrait of Justice Field by Washington, D.C., photographer Charles Milton Bell.  The cabinet card has a gilt beveled edge with rounded corners.  Both the portrait and the card are clean and bright.  The gilded edge retains much, if not all, of its original shine, and the card has its original sheen.  Field has signed in black fountain pen beneath his image.

The Library of Congress, which owns a collection of more than 30,000 of Bell’s glass negatives, calls Bell (1848–1893) “one of Washington’s leading portrait photographers during the last quarter of the nineteenth century.”  Bell opened his own studio in 1873 after leaving the family studio where he learned photography at age 19.  From the beginning, his studio was one of the most fashionable and best equipped in the country.  The quality of Bell’s portraiture rivaled that of his competitors, including renowned Civil War photographers Mathew Brady and Alexander Gardner.  Bell had the largest portfolio of images of Washington notables, and he also produced some 600 portraits of Native Americans.

The intricate logo on the back of this card touts Bell’s “Artistic Photography” at 463–465 Pennsylvania Avenue.  Bell later expanded the studio to encompass four buildings, at 459–465 Pennsylvania Avenue.  Given the early two-building address on the card and Justice Field’s evident age in this image, this photograph likely dates from the early to mid-1870s, not long after Bell established his studio, when Field would have been around age 60.   

With a tenure 34 years, 6 months, and 12 days, Field remains the second-longest serving Supreme Court Justice, behind William O. Douglas.  His service eclipsed that of Chief Justice John Marshall.  A Democrat whom President Abraham Lincoln appointed because of his strong support of the union during the Civil War, Field was Chief Justice of the California Supreme Court when Lincoln named him to fill a new tenth seat that Congress authorized on the Court.

Field came from a prominent family.  He was the brother of lawyer David Dudley Field II (1805–1894), whose work led to enactment of New York’s Field Code of civil procedure; financier Cyrus W. Field (1819–1892), whose Atlantic Telegraph Company laid the first transatlantic cable in 1858; and author and clergyman Henry Martyn Field (1822–1907). 

This card bears Bell’s stylized printed name and cipher on the front along with the printed location “Washington, D.C.”   The ornate printed back has a lion-and-scroll motif that bears the same stylized printed name and an array of artwork. 

We have not found this particular image of Field in auction records or anywhere else, although the Library of Congress collection has a similar image that appears to have been made at the same sitting.  This piece is in exceptional condition for one nearly 150 years old.  Were it not for mounting remnants and an old dealer pencil price notation on the back, which do not detract from the superior quality of the photograph and signature and the overall condition of the card, this piece would be in very fine condition.  But under the exacting grading standards of The Manuscript Society, which we fastidiously apply, we regretfully must grade it fine.


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