The Fine Art of Crime

Jane Rosenberg has to choose carefully to whom she tells what: “When I go to a party, if I tell people I’m a painter, they say, ‘That’s nice’ and then they walk away; but if I tell them I’m a courtroom artist, they say ‘Wow’ and want to talk to me all night. It’s so different and interesting to them. But galleries aren’t so impressed—in fact, they don’t know what to make of courtroom art (it’s not quite fine art, it’s not quite illustration)—so I only tell them about my paintings.” The moral may be that a day job allows artists to hold onto their dreams as well as to keep conversations from lagging.

Russian spy-ring ‘bombshell’ Anna Chapman, as depicted in court.

You probably have seen her work. In early July, Ms. Rosenberg covered for ABC, CBS, CNN, Fox and NBC the recent Russian spy ring arraignment in Manhattan federal court that featured the “bombshell” Anna Chapman, and the artist has also been on hand for the trials of Bernie Madoff; Brooke Astor’s son, Anthony Marshall; Martha Stewart; Boy George; John Gotti; Ethel Kennedy’s nephew Michael Skakel; the Woody Allen-Mia Farrow custody case; and lots of others over a 30-year career.

Ms. Rosenberg’s work comes in two types: She is a plein air artist, regularly taking her paint box and French easel out onto the streets of Manhattan to create mostly street-level cityscapes, crowded with people, buildings and color. As a courtroom artist, she is the one who is cramped, battling with other courtroom artists to get a seat with a good view of the defendants, lawyers, judges and jurors, making quick pastel sketches on her lap and making sure that nothing touches the paper because that will smudge the picture. If she is lucky, the court proceedings will last long enough for her to get a good look; if it is a five-minute arraignment—well, let’s hope she gets it right the first time.

You see her work, but then you don’t really get to see it, because everything flashes by so quickly. For the Russian spy case, for example—or the even more recent corruption trial of former Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich, which has been immortalized in pastel for NBC by Arthur Lien—we see the television anchor introducing the story, photographs from somewhere of one or another of the spies, the TV reporter saying something, an interviewee offering some brief commentary, a fleeting glance at the courtroom image (cameras generally aren’t permitted in federal courts), some more footage of the reporter, and then a quick look again at the courtroom picture before the anchor returns to the screen.

Ms. Chapman, of all the sleeper spies, garnered the greatest coverage in the tabloid press and on the internet because of her beauty and lifestyle, but you might not know what made her so eye-catching from the courtroom drawing. “It’s hard to make someone look glamorous in a quick sketch,” Ms. Rosenberg said. “She was under fluorescent lights, which doesn’t do much for anyone. She was shivering, looking tense, talking to her lawyer. I drew what I saw.”

Christine Cornell, another New York-based, pastel-using courtroom artist hired by Reuters and several television news outlets to cover the Russian spy case, “wanted to capture some of Chapman’s glamour, but I’m not sure I did it as well as I could have.” First of all, she got to the courthouse only an hour in advance, and some other courtroom artists had been there for hours—in a first-come, first-served business, they got the front row and Ms. Cornell was behind them. What’s more, many of the front-row artists were standing, which made it hard for her to see around them. There were 11 spies in all to draw in that one-hour arraignment—plus this is a courtroom, so lawyers, prosecutors and a judge have to be squeezed into the compressed space of a 19-by-26-inch picture. “I drew her messing her with her hair with both hands. It was an action that seemed out of place but kind of a glamour pose.”

When the hearing ended, Ms. Cornell, Ms. Rosenberg and all the other courtroom artists in attendance rushed outside, where photographers were waiting to take pictures of their sketches that could be transmitted quickly back to the newsrooms. Sometimes, they can lean the drawings up against a wall, or someone brings an easel. On occasion, things get a bit fancier. For the 2005 child-molestation trial of Michael Jackson, a booth with lighting was set up outside the courthouse for Sacramento, Calif., artist Vicki Behringer’s watercolor scenes of the trial. Undoubtedly, you saw those pictures, too. You take in the visual information, not giving a thought to what it must be like to hold a palette in your left hand, painting with your right and praying that no one jostles you, causing the bottle of water in your bag to spill. “The look of courtroom art in New York is pastel,” Ms. Behringer said. “The look in California is watercolor.”

She noted that “I really haven’t had many accidents. Pastels are messy, and the pastel dusts make me cough. Watercolors, on the other hand, dry quickly, and you can apply large swaths of color.”

For courtroom artists, the work is sporadic (a celebrity in trouble with the law helps), and it is most lucrative when a number of different news outlets call on a single artist. Bill Robles, a courtroom artist in Los Angeles who has covered the trials of Jackson, Patty Hearst, Rodney King and Timothy McVeigh, noted that he is paid between $500 and $650 per day (the more network affiliates use the story, the more he receives) per client. He covered the U.S. government’s lawsuit against Arizona’s new immigration law for eight different news outlets, which he called “a very good day’s work.”

These artists retain their drawings and paintings, which they sometimes sell to the lawyers and judges they depict, and the prices can range from $500 to $1,500. (Ms. Cornell said that one lawyer hired her just to draw him making a closing argument in some otherwise nonnewsworthy case.) Many judges around the country still are reluctant to allow cameras into their courtrooms—Elena Kagan, in her Supreme Court confirmation hearing, expressed her view that the High Court’s activities should be televised, a view that others on the bench do not share—so it appears that courtroom artists will find work for the foreseeable future.

Mr. Grant is the author of “The Business of Being an Artist” (Allworth).


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