What Do Courtroom Sketch Artists Do?

Art History

October 20, 2019

Since the Salem witch trials of 1692, over a century before the first ever photograph was taken, artists have been rendering sensitive and high-profile proceedings for an eagerly awaiting public. Ever since, courtroom sketch artists have captured the likes of David "Son of Sam" Berkowitz, Charles Manson, O.J. Simpson, Michael Jackson, Roman Polanski, Tupac Shakur and Lindsey Lohan, to name just a few. They don’t merely act as recorders of a moment, but they distill for us how people gesture, their relationships to other people in the room and moments of action in the court that define the trial as well.

One would think that in the age when everyone carries a camera in their pocket, these old-fashioned drawings would become redundant. However, they continue to play a crucial role in capturing memorable moments in court.

An 1889 courtroom sketch from the trial of ex-Alderman Thomas Cleary, which was published in The New York Times - the art form though time
An 1889 courtroom sketch from the trial of ex-Alderman Thomas Cleary, which was published in The New York Times

A Short History of Courtroom Sketches

Detailed, illustrative drawings of courtrooms date back at least as far as the 17th century, each reflecting the court standards and mores of the place and time in which it was made. Even after photography was invented in 1839, it was not a practical option for courtroom news coverage for a long time. Honoré Daumier, a French caricaturist and artist working in the 19th century, is known for drawings depicting nameless lawyers and other judicial workers deep in conversation, peaky faces looming out over dark robes.

At some point in the 19th century, illustrations started to depict particular court cases. Among the famous 19th-century courtroom sketches are the ones capturing the famous Oscar Wilde's 1895 trial for "gross indecency", the trial of abolitionist John Brown and the impeachment of Andrew Johnson.

The modern field of courtroom drawing​ in the United States dates back to the 1930s, specifically to the “Lindbergh baby” trial and all the hysteria surrounding it. As flashing cameras and whirring newsreels of reporters, photographers, and videographers added to the chaos of the "trial of the century," the American Bar decided to ban all cameras from future court cases. In order to continue their coverage of dramatic courtroom proceedings, news stations, without cameras, relied on artists' depictions, in order to give the viewers a visual sense of the proceedings. For this reason, these artists toe the line of talent, speed, accuracy and precision.

Skilled at quickly conveying both individual likenesses and the atmosphere of the courtroom, these artists reveal, in intimate detail, the dramatic and at times mundane aspects of trial proceedings. Famous trial cases greatly influenced the way Americans perceive race and race relations, religion, gender issues, political and corporate corruption, international relations, and the role of celebrities in society. Capturing people from all walks of life in their most vulnerable moments, as well as gestures, appearance and relationships, court sketches provide insight into the drama and impact of these events. With the lack of physical action in the courtroom, artists must rely on minute changes of facial expression to communicate the drama of the proceedings.

Reporter-artist Marguerite Martyn made this sketch of spectators at the murder trial of Dora Doxey, printed in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch on June 2, 1910
Reporter-artist Marguerite Martyn made this sketch of spectators at the murder trial of Dora Doxey, printed in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch on June 2, 1910

Famous Courtroom Sketch Artists

There is a range of notable courtroom artists whose work captured history. An American journalist and artist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in the early 20th century, Marguerite Martyn was noted as much for her published sketches as for her reporting. A sketch artist best known for his World War II combat and courtroom sketches, Howard Brodie documented the Jack Ruby 1964 trial for murdering Harvey Lee Oswald, among many others. An Emmy Award-nominated courtroom artist, Bill Robles covered the trials of Charles Manson, O.J. Simpson, Ted Kaczynski, Timothy McVeigh, Terry Nichols, Richard Ramirez, Rodney King, and Michael Jackson. The first trial he covered was the Manson one, where he captured him leaping across the courtroom to attack the judge with a pencil.

Working for two decades on Supreme Court assignments, Aggie Whelan Kenny won an Emmy for her work on the Mitchell-Stans trial (1974) for the CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite. Also known as the grande dame of court sketching, Ida Libby Dengrove visualized the moods and faces of some notorious trials for the television audience, including the Son of Sam trial and the Murder-at-the-Met trial of Craig S. Crimmins. She also sketched John Lennon as a defendant, Jackie Kennedy Onassis as a plaintiff, Mick Jagger as a witness, Sid Vicious as an accused murderer, as well as mobsters John Gotti, Carmine “The Snake” Persico and Anthony “Fat Tony” Salerno as they tried to escape the grip of the law. Working in a courtroom for over three decades, Christine Cornell drew icy blue-eyed David Berkowitz and was there when Mark David Chapman (who killed John Lennon) was brought before the judge. She says:

Courtrooms are fascinating places, where the best and the worst of humanity are frequently on display. The stakes are high, and the stories unfold in pieces, through a peculiar and purposely dispassionate process. I know of no better place to draw, where you can so closely observe and absorb such unusual and compelling characters.

Robert Templeton Drawings and sketches related to the trial of Bobby Seale and Ericka Huggins, New Haven, Connecticut, 1971
Robert Templeton Drawings and sketches related to the trial of Bobby Seale and Ericka Huggins, New Haven, Connecticut, 1971

Courtroom Sketching Today

Over the years, in step with developing technologies and growing public interest in criminal trials, some U.S. courts relaxed their camera restrictions. During the 1970s, some states permitted taking photos in limited use, and by the early ’90s, even some federal courts experimented with bringing them back. The turning point was the O. J. Simpson trial, the so-called trial of the century, where the judge boldly allowed a single news camera into his court. However, this backfired and the courtroom turned into a circus. After this experience, judges became weary of the cameras in the courtroom.

Today in 2019, the cameras are allowed in the courtrooms of all 50 US states at the discretion of the judge, who rarely allow their presence. To this day, courtroom sketches are still winning out over photographic documentation.

It seems it is easier to capture the atmosphere of a trial with a camera, but an artist can do what the camera cannot do - draw around an object or slightly tighten a composition and, most importantly, edit and distill the day’s drama and emotion into a single frame. It seems these drawings provide something extra - they reflect the emotional resonance of what happened and provide more of an essence. Katherine Krubb, who curated the 1995 exhibition Witness of the People: Courtroom Art in the Electronic Age at what was then called the Museum of Television and Radio in New York, described courtroom illustrations as necessarily impressionistic. “[They] seek to capture scenes from everyday modern life in flickering, fleeting images,” she writes, comparing them to the work of 19th-century artists Edgar Degas or Édouard Manet.

The Courtroom Sketch Artist / Op-Docs / The New York Times

  Editors’ Tip: Courtroom Art: In the Dock with the Rich and Famous by Daniel Scott

Courtroom Art is the first survey of courtroom artists' work, which, with upcoming changes in the rules about photography in court, may not be with us for much longer. It contains over 100 images from the world's key courtroom artists, depicting celebrities as diverse as Mohammed Al Fayed and Tom Cruise, and capturing some unforgettable moments: Winona Ryder's demure new courtroom image in 2002, Heather Mills McCartney throwing water over her estranged husband's lawyer in 2008, and Nigella Lawson confessing to cocaine use in 2013. Accompanied by exclusive insight from the artists, and descriptions of the court cases they illustrated, this book is a fascinating record of this unique art form.

Featured image: Courtroom sketch showing an accused person (centre, in yellow) flanked by attorneys at sentencing, drawn in about eight minutes. All images Creative Commons.