In the first article in this series, I showed how, during the nineteenth century, paintings of courts of law came to depict those of the day, and to tell stories of contemporary cases. The early years of the twentieth century brought the most prolific painter of courtroom scenes, and led to the growth of a relatively new profession, the courtroom artist.
Jean-Louis Forain was a successful painter, caricaturist and political satirist in the late nineteenth century, who had long admired the work of Honoré Daumier (shown in the previous article). When Forain turned his attention to justice and the law after about 1902, he went beyond Daumier’s biting images of lawyers, entering the courtroom itself.
Forain’s The Court from about 1902-03 is one of the first of his series of courtroom views, and most neutral in its approach. In the foreground, a lawyer discusses the case with a woman, who is bent forward to hear his whispering. In the distance the court appears detached, perhaps disinterested, the judges sat behind large piles of papers, under a large painting of the crucifixion. This work was bought from the artist by Edgar Degas.
By the time that Forain painted this Trial Scene from 1904, his satire had come to the surface. The court here is so completely disinterested in the case before it that its judge is incapable of remaining awake, and the jurors at the left are hardly attentive either.
In The Petition (1906), a young woman is in search of justice, perhaps a divorce, in an alien environment in which her petition is presented by lawyers, rather than being allowed to engage herself.
A much younger woman stands out in Forain’s Scene at the Tribunal (1906), as a lawyer turns and scowls disapprovingly at her.
Forain’s caustic satire continues in Counsel and Accused (1908), where a lawyer inhabiting a different world is shuffling through disordered papers, while his client and her children sit waiting in the office.
Two women are shown in his Scene of the Tribunal from 1910, a lawyer talking to them as the court is oblivious to their presence.
Legal Assistance (c 1900-12) shows an ordinary family man, cradling his young child in his arms as he presents a paper to a barrister or judge (wearing his short cylindrical hat). This painting was bought by Henri Rouart, an industrialist who was a good patron of the arts, as well as a fine amateur painter himself.
In Forain’s undated Court Scene, Exhibits, the material evidence at a trial is being presented, presumably to one of the women giving evidence.
Sadly only available in this monochrome image, Forain’s undated painting of Recess of the Court is his most scathing. The judge leans back, fast asleep, as chaos takes hold in the court. Laywers are talking amongst themselves, and furniture is being moved around. Where is justice?
Courts in some jurisdictions have long been very reticent about allowing parties, judges, or juries to be drawn, painted or photographed. Although American practice has long allowed artists as reporters, in 1925 Britain made it illegal to draw inside a courtroom during a trial. The thirst for images for publication has since been satisfied by artists who work entirely from memory.
In some cases, producing drawings and paintings of court proceedings may be quite a mechanical act, and more appropriately considered as illustration than fine art (although I find it very hard to make clear distinction, as if that serves any useful purpose).
Arnold Mesches’ Courtroom sketch of the US Navy’s court of inquiry about USS Pueblo’s capture by North Korea from 1969 is perhaps more of an illustrative record of a court in session, sketched from a square and conventional position. But other artists and cases are quite different.
Robert Clark Templeton’s Sketch of an Overview of the Courtroom from 1971 tackles several classical problems in visual art. The courtroom is quite large, with the protagonists spread around the room. The judge at the far right is quite distant, and elevated from, the jurors, who spread across the middle of the view, almost to the left edge. But the most important individual is the accused, who is seen in profile just below the right end of the jury.
Templeton was limited in his choice of media too. Few courts would have even considered him using watercolours, for example, and for this case he chose modern and unobtrusive oil pastels. This sketch has been executed briskly, with very effective use of gestures and marks, such as the water jug on the table in front of the accused, and the windows behind the jury.
Templeton’s Drawing of an Overview of the Courtroom (1971) is more vivid with its use of colour, but is dominated by the backs of several heads.
When Templeton projected himself forward for this Drawing of Judge, Jurors and others (1971), he moved from general scene-setting to the drama of the proceedings. He has been a little creative in the composition, but captures the interaction between judge and jury very well.
This is the image that most of the press wanted, though: a Drawing for CBS Evening News of Bobby G. Seale and others (1971) showing the head and shoulders of the accused, who co-founded the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense and was here on trial in New Haven, CT, for the murder of Alex Rackley. The jury was unable to reach a verdict and the case was declared a mistrial.
Another fine example of courtroom art is Elizabeth Williams’ portrait of Faisal Shahzad, The “Times Square Bomber” Sentencing, Manhattan Federal Court: October 5, 2010 (2010). Shahzad had pleaded guilty to five counts of federal terrorism-related crimes committed when he planted a car bomb in Times Square, New York, on 5 May 2010, for which he was sentenced to life imprisonment without parole.
Still photography during trials has also been extremely controversial, but during the twenty-first century, many jurisdictions have opened their courtrooms to television, following the audience success of the O J Simpson murder trial in 1995.
What happens in our courtrooms continues to fascinate us, although no longer through their art.