Maxwell Nolin, an oil portrait artist at his studio in Belfast. Nolin recently finished a portrait of retiring U.S. District Chief Judge Jon Levy. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Chief U.S. District Judge Jon Levy was looking for a coffee when he found Maxwell Nolin.

He walked into Downshift Coffee in Belfast last summer and noticed a number of oil portraits on display. Levy was in need of such a portrait to commemorate his impending retirement from the federal court in Maine, and he had been searching for a local artist for the commission. He wrote down Nolin’s name.

“They had a modern sense to them,” Levy said of the paintings. “They weren’t formal portraits in any way. You felt like you were really looking at the person now. On the other hand, they were such high quality that they were clearly portraits in the tradition of portraiture.”

Earlier this month, Nolin unveiled the official portrait of Levy that will now hang in the U.S. District Court in Portland alongside the images of the judge’s predecessors. The 33-year-old artist specializes in realist oil portraits and often takes commissions, but this high-profile request was a boon for his burgeoning career. He devoted himself to this specialty because he finds it challenging on both a technical level and a creative one.

“It’s one thing to be able to capture someone’s likeness, to get their features right,” said Nolin, who is based in Belfast. “But being able to really express an individual soul or spirit or essence or whatever you want to call it with pigment and oil and a brush sometimes can feel like alchemy in a way if you can get it right. It doesn’t always go as planned. It doesn’t always happen. But when you can, it feels great and it keeps me going.”

Jana Halwick is the owner of Carver Hill Gallery in Camden and Rockland, which represents the artist. She said Nolin’s niche is rare in the modern day, especially for a painter his age, but she said visitors are “absolutely staggered” by his work.


“Even though the work is so tight, it’s not rigid, and that is so hard to achieve,” she said. “The paintings are so beautifully executed.”

Maxwell Nolin’s oil portrait of U.S. District Chief Judge Jon Levy hanging in Nolin’s studio. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer


Nolin’s portraits begin with a photograph. Actually, one hundred photographs. The finished product is based not on a single image but on multiple.

“I don’t copy a photo,” he said. “I interpret it and use it as a guide for facial features and proportions, but ultimately, it’s a lot of invention.”

“The Seeker,” a portrait commission by Maxwell Nolin. 24 inches by 20 inches. Oil on panel. Photo courtesy of Maxwell Nolin

Photography was actually Nolin’s first artistic interest. He grew up in Andover, Massachusetts. His mother, Catherine DeQuattro Nolin, is an artist who works in vibrant interior still life paintings, room portraits and botanical designs. He and his brother spent hours in her studio, and Nolin loved reading her art books. He was 5 or 6  when he first saw a coffee table book of portraits by the famous photographer Annie Leibovitz. It left a strong impression on him, and he later spent many hours in the dark room at his high school.

After graduation, Nolin decided to study at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. But he found college wasn’t right for him and moved to Maine to work on his cousin’s Midcoast farm. He loved the work, but he missed the art.


“Ultimately, every winter, I was painting,” he said. “It was great physical activity in the summer, and I felt like I was making a difference, bringing food to community and all that good stuff. But I was always, ‘Oh, but I just want to paint.’ Winters, I was really digging deep into just trying to get better.”

He connected with Linden Frederick, a respected realist painter based in Belfast. Nolin said the experienced artist took him under his wing, and he also nudged Nolin to pursue further training in Italy. In 2019, Nolin spent three months studying in an intensive program at the Florence Academy and taking one-on-one lessons with a Russian painter to develop his skills. The work was heavily focused on figure drawing from live models.

Halwick met Nolin through his mentor, Frederick.

“Fast food, fast art, fast furniture all came into fashion as a sign of where we’re at as a society, and Maxwell, for someone his age, he’s practicing what I’m calling ‘slow art,'” Halwick said. “He’s really taking his time with these pieces and going back to Florence, Italy, and working with Linden and practicing these time-honored techniques in his work. It’s kind of like spending an entire day stirring a pot of soup. It absorbs the flavors and gets better.”


It’s tradition in the federal court in Maine to have portraits prepared of retiring judges. Levy, who was sworn into office as a federal judge in 2014 and was a member of the Maine Supreme Judicial Court before that, said the paintings he sees in the courthouse remind him of the great responsibility of his position. Some predated him by decades, while others are familiar faces. The portrait of retired District Judge George Singal, for example, is displayed in the courtroom where Levy sits most often.


“It’s always reassuring for me when I glance over and see Judge Singal,” he said.

Still, the prospect of joining the frames on the wall was daunting.

“Heartstrings,” a personal piece by Maxwell Nolin. 14 inches by 11 inches. Oil on panel. Photo courtesy of Maxwell Nolin

“There are very few lines of work where there is a tradition of formal portraits,” Levy said. “It’s quite unusual. It’s certainly, for me, caused me to question, is this really appropriate? Am I worthy of a portrait? Is it deserved? There are so many people that I work with in the court system who contribute so much that the idea that only judges are selected for the possibility of a portrait feels unfair to me. So there was that discomfort.

“But I did come back to the idea that first of all, we can’t do portraits of everyone, and second of all, the judges are the public face of the court, so it only makes sense for them to be subjects of portraits. And I do come back to the fact that I view the portraits as a collection as being an important tribute to all the people that preceded us and whose shoulders we rest now, who through some good time and some very, very bad times upheld the rule of law here in Maine.”

Nolin and Levy talked on the phone and on Zoom before they met in person. They talked about painting and bluegrass music, family and law. Nolin and his brother visited the courthouse in Portland to take as many as 200 photos of the judge at various positions and angles. Nolin narrowed down the images, and the judge chose two that became the basis for the portrait. The judge shared the details that were important to him and, now, to the portrait – his love of the outdoors, his collection of law books, the silver ring he inherited from his father and his grandfather.

“I came of age as a lawyer and then as a judge really before the advent of electronic legal research,” Levy said. “I’m one of the last of the generation of people in the law who like using law books to conduct research and do legal writing. The books themselves are beautiful. I see the books as a tribute to the past and to those that preceded me in the law.”


The artist said he appreciated the chance to get to know the judge so he could better capture his personality in the portrait.

“I was a little bit intimidated,” he said. “As a young portrait artist, getting a commission like this is a big deal for me because it’s such a prominent painting that will live in the courthouse, and it will outlive me. He just put me right at ease. It was really important for me to get that warmth, that inviting energy.”

Halwick said Nolin helps people relax over the course of a session in a way that makes the final portrait more genuine.

“He painted a young woman I know very well,” she said. “She was playing with her necklace, and it’s just what she does. The early photographs, she was just trying to look a certain way, and he waited for that very natural, beautiful gesture, her just twisting her necklace around. And it was perfect.”

Paint brushes in Maxwell Nolin’s studio in Belfast. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer


Nolin spent the winter working on the life-size portrait.


He follows a disciplined schedule, painting six a days a week and teaching private lessons. He tries to balance personal and commissioned projects, and he said his commissions are booked for the year. He charges a flat fee for those individual portraits, which ranges from $2,000 for an 11-by-14-inch to $10,800 for a 30-by-40-inch, according to his website. The fee for the judge’s portrait in the frame was around $18,000, he said.

Halwick hosted a solo show of Nolin’s work at Carver Hill Gallery once called “Reverent.” To her, that word describes the quality that often attracts people to buy his personal work, even if they have no connection to the subject.

“It takes a certain person to hang a portrait in their house of a person they don’t know,” Halwick said. “A good portrait isn’t necessarily about that person.”

At a time when people can use an app to create the effect of a painting and few will ever have their official portrait made like Levy did, Nolin said he sees the work he makes as being not just about the subject.

“Someone labored over this,” he said. “Who is that person, and what was their relationship to them? Why did they choose to paint them the way that they did? It’s beautiful harmony. My job is to communicate the essence of somebody, and the viewer’s job is to experience that.”

The experience has been an inspiration for Levy, who is himself a painter. The judge has taken a few night classes at the Maine College of Art and Design, and he said he likes to work “en plein air” so he can be outside. During his career, he found art to be an outlet. Upon his retirement, he hopes to have more time to explore.

“It has caused me to think about the possibility of trying to do a portrait,” he said of his own. “I attempted a few a long time ago. … But it seems to me people are the ultimate subject.”

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