Courts, where citizens are tried for alleged crimes or pursue grievances against others, are as ancient as rulers. Their name indicates how they were once a hearing in front of a monarch or their representative. When the classical civilisations of Greece and Rome adopted more democratic constitutions, judges, magistrates, and juries were substituted for the ruler.
Prior to the nineteenth century, courts commonly featured in two groups of paintings: those involved in key events in the Bible, most notably the trial of Jesus Christ, and those featured in major history narratives.
The story given by Herodotus about the corruption of Sisamnes, known as the Judgement of Cambyses, is today very obscure. However, in 1489 it formed the basis for two paintings by Gerard David which are now viewed as a diptych.
Sisamnes was a notoriously corrupt judge under the rule of King Cambyses II of Persia, and accepted a bribe in return for delivering an unjust verdict.
In the left panel, Sisamnes is being arrested by the king and his men, as the judge sits in his official chair. Hand gestures indicate the bribery which had been at the root of Sisamnes’ crime.
King Cambyses sentences Sisamnes to be flayed alive, as shown in the foreground. In the upper right, David uses multiplex narrative to show the judge’s skin then covering the official chair, as a reminder to all who sit in judgement of the fate that awaits them should they ever become corrupt or unfair.
David’s gruesome pair of paintings were a pointed reminder to the authorities in Bruges of the importance of an independent judiciary, and the penalty for any judge who was tempted by bribery or any other form of influence – cautions which have contemporary value even now.
The other much better-known story of judgement is that of King Solomon, told in the Old Testament, and in a succession of marvellous paintings since the Renaissance. Two women each claimed to be the mother of the same healthy baby, alleging that the other was the mother of a dead child. Solomon’s wise judgement was to threaten to cut the living baby in two, which elicited the correct protective response from the real mother of that child.
Nicolas Poussin’s famous painting of 1649 uses a classical composition, the two disputing women and their actions preventing it from becoming too symmetrical. Timed slightly before the raising of the sword, the master of painted narrative depicts the body language with great clarity. Solomon’s hands indicate his role as the arbiter, in showing a fair balance between the two sides.
The true mother, on the left, holds her left hand up to tell the soldier to stop following the King’s instructions and spare the infant. Her right hand is extended towards the false mother, indicating that she has asked for the baby to go to her rather than die. The false mother points accusingly at the child, her expression full of hatred. Hands are also raised in the group at the right, perhaps indicating their reactions to Solomon’s judgement.
It wasn’t until the nineteenth century that a growing interest in contemporary courts, and well-publicised trials, made them a popular theme in paintings. As very few people ever see inside a courtroom, one of the first tasks of artists was to reveal what they looked like – a task which continues even today with illustrations in newspapers and on television.
Thomas Rowlandson and Augustus Pugin’s painting of The Old Bailey, Known Also as the Central Criminal Court from 1808, here seen in an aquatint, is a good topographic view of this most famous English court. The presiding judge sits under a Damoclean sword of justice at the left, and the twelve men of the jury are to the right of centre. At the far right stands the accused, in front of whom is a large collection of witnesses ready to testify.
That was, and remains, an exceptional court. More typical of the type of court which ordinary citizens might encounter is Adolph Tidemand’s Scene before a Magistrate in the Country (before 1858), seen here in a lithograph. Set somewhere in rural Norway, the bench of magistrates sits at the right in more cramped and modest surroundings. Its justice may have been rougher, but the experience was far less daunting, and less overwhelmed by lawyers.
In some jurisdictions, the rise of lawyers to prominence in life during the nineteenth century was not welcomed.
For the satirical eye of Honoré Daumier, Three Lawyers (1855-57) meeting was the gathering of an elite who were out to help themselves, rather than the unfortunate people that they purported to represent. Their heads tipped back and clutching thick bundles of papers, Daumier had less respect of them than they had for themselves.
Daumier’s Before the Hearing from 1860-65 shows them in a tight cabal before entering court.
In his undated Two Lawyers Conversing, you can be sure that they are up to no good, except for themselves.
Other artists took a more conventional and less critical view.
Abraham Solomon’s wonderful pair of paintings is actually set just outside the court. In the first, the father and family of the accused are seen Waiting for the Verdict (1859) at the end of a trial. The court appears in cameo up to the right, in that strange state of suspended animation as it awaits the decision.
Solomon’s pendant shows the elation when the verdict of Not Guilty (1859) is returned. The man, now freed from the dock, is embraced by his wife, who is kneeling in supplication, as their young child reaches out to touch father’s face. His father, eyes damp with tears of relief, is thanking their barrister earnestly.
In place of the view of the distant court, which is being symbolically dismissed as the barrister closes a door at the right edge, the left side of the painting now leads out to the warm light of the early dusk in the outside world, indicating freedom.
Jean-Léon Gérôme’s Phryne before the Areopagus from 1861 harks back to a classical legend of an unusual court case in Athens.
Phryne was a highly successful and very rich courtesan (hetaira) in ancient Greece who was brought to trial for the serious crime of impiety. When it seemed inevitable that she would be found guilty, one of her lovers, the orator Hypereides, took on her defence. A key part of that was to unveil her naked in front of the court, in an attempt to surprise its members, impress them with the beauty of her body, and arouse a sense of pity. The legend claims that this ploy worked perfectly.
Gérôme shows a whole textbook of responses to surprise among the members of the court, although Phryne herself is covering not her body, but her eyes; each of the men in the court, of course, is looking straight at her. At the time that Gérôme painted this, France was well into its Second Empire, when Napoleon III had removed the gag from the French press, and was moving from his early authoritarian regime towards the more liberal. The legend of Phryne was a convenient vehicle for Gérôme to express his political opinion, and her nakedness suggests her role is that of Truth.
Coverage of prominent court cases came to dominate reporting in the press throughout Europe and North America. Several cases became so popular that they moved artists to depict them, and one, the Dreyfus Affair in France, had lasting influence on that nation’s history.
Frederick Sargent’s painting of The Tichborne Trial (1873-1899) shows one of the most prominent cases in England. In 1854, Roger Tichborne, heir to a title and family riches, was presumed to have died in a shipwreck. The following year, an Australian butcher came forward with the claim that he was that heir, which was tested in a civil court case, heard between 1871-72.
The outcome of that rejected the claim, and the Australian butcher then underwent criminal prosecution for perjury, in one of the longest criminal cases heard in an English court, during 188 days between 1872-73. Sargent’s painting shows that case in progress, with the accused sitting just below the centre and looking straight ahead of him. Standing to the right of him is his barrister, Edward Kenealy, with ‘mutton chop’ whiskers.
The Australian butcher was convicted, sentenced to fourteen years in prison, and eventually died destitute in 1898. His barrister’s career was also finished, and he was subsequently disbarred. He was elected as a Member of Parliament for his own political party in 1875, but died shortly after losing that seat in 1880.
The melodrama of legal process is shown in William Frederick Yeames’ ‘problem picture’ Defendant and Counsel from 1895. An affluent married woman wearing an expensive fur coat sits with a popular newspaper open in front of her, as a team of three barristers and their clerk look at her intensely, presumably waiting for her to speak.
As she is the defendant, the viewer is encouraged to speculate what she is defending: a divorce claim, or a criminal charge? As with Yeames’ earlier And when did you last see your Father? and Gérôme’s Phryne before the Areopagus, this may be another exploration of truth and its problems.
Ferdinand Brütt’s Before the Judges from 1903 shows the end of an era in the courtroom, as an official lights the candles in its chandelier, and its three judges sit hearing the case being put to them.
In the next and concluding article, I will look at the remarkable court paintings of Jean-Louis Forain, and the work of the modern court artist.