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History of the Genre

Court artists have always been a busy lot. Initially, there was no photography to be employed in courtrooms, then it became banned at trials, and, finally, the idea rooted that a sketch done on the spot sometimes says a lot more than a photograph. The genre of courtroom sketch is now past its prime, and the decline started in the late 1970’s when a Florida court decreed that photography is admissible in American courtrooms. Yet even now, in many cases a court is simply not ready to turn a trial in a sort of reality show, and photographers are sometimes banned from the room. There are times when a court artist works in a team with a court reporter who selects a scene for the artist to represent, but there are practically no traces of sensationalism in courtroom drawing. This is a serious job, after all, and very delicate. It’s easy to understand why it’s more preferable than court photography.

Court artists use different techniques, ranging from pencil sketches to watercolors. In genre, the courtroom art is also different, from portraits to scene sketches. Courtroom art is not defined by technique or genre, but by the location and circumstance, as well as the artist’s vision and his or her ability to catch and depict transient moments.

The history of court drawing may have started with the work of Honoré Daumier, and his series of lithographs “Les Gens de Justice” in particular (1835-1848).
Honoré Daumier Honoré Daumier Honoré Daumier

the Beilis TrialIn Russia (and, later, in the USSR, and, again, Russia), artists were first admitted into courtrooms in the mid-19th century. In 1881, at the “March 1” Group (the “Pervomartovtsi”, or the “People’s Will” underground anti-Tsarist organization members) Trial there were present at least three artists: explorer and medical doctor Pavel Pyasetsky, “Itinerant” painter Vladimir Makovsky, and police artist A. Nasvetevich. There still exist sketches from the Beilis Trial in 1913.

The famous painting by the Soviet group Kukryniksy “The End. The Last Hours in Hitler’s Hideaway” and their graphic series “Accusation” (portraying war criminals and their lawyers at the Nuremberg Trial in 1945-1946) were based on the artists’ eyewitness accounts of the Nazi criminals court trial. The Nuremberg Trial participants were also depicted by Soviet cartoonist Boris Yefimov in his “Nuremberg Series”.

In the United States there are dozens of eminent artists famous for their court drawing.

American illustrator Leo Hershfield (1904-1979) worked in courtrooms at the trials of the Chicago Seven charged with conspiracy and inciting to riot; the Harrisburg Seven and the Gainesville Eight, who protested against the war in Vietnam; he drew the proceedings at major trials of pediatrician and civil rights advocate Benjamin Spock; American war criminal William Calley, sentenced to life imprisonment at hard labor for ordering the My Lai Massacre; Clay Shaw, the only person prosecuted in connection with the assassination of President John F. Kennedy; Jack Ruby who shot Lee Harvey Oswald; Arthur Bremer, convicted for an assassination attempt on presidential candidate George Wallace; the murderer of Martin Luther King Jr. James Earl Ray, etc.

Famous comic book artist Dick Rockwell (1920-2006) participated in court trials of Weather Underground and Black Liberation Army radical organizations.

Journalist and artist Rosalie Ritz (1923-2008) covered proceedings at the trials of Patty Hearst who had joined the leftist radical organization “Symbionese Liberation Army”; Sirhan Sirhan, the senator Robert F. Kennedy killer; Charles Manson, the leader of apocalyptic quasi-commune responsible for the murder of actress Sharon Tate; and the Black Panthers (Huey P. Newton, Angela Davis) trials. American illustrator Bill Lignante worked alongside with her in covering Charlie Manson, Patty Hearst, and Sirhan Sirhan.

Paulette Frankl still works as a courtroom artist. She covered major trials of American civil rights attorney J. Tony Serra, Ellie Nesler who killed her young son’s molester in 1993, and the gambling executive Ted Binion’s murder trial in the late 1990’s, among others.
Paulette Frankl

In 2005, there was an art show “Case Studies” by Moscow artist Pavel Shevelev, exhibiting his sketches from Meshchansky Court where the case of Mikhail Khodorkovsky and Platon Lebedev was heard in 2004-2005. In his interview to “Novaya Gazeta” the artist said about the most interesting part of this job, “The most interesting part is that there are 50 thousand artists in Moscow, but it occurred to no one just to come and draw this trial. And there are 5 million people who don’t come to the court”.

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