The Art of Crime: Courtroom Drawings in the Arts Department

Have you ever looked at a courtroom sketch and thought, “That looks nothing like Tom Brady!” Have you ever wondered why chalk sketches of courtroom trials are used instead of photographs? It seems so outdated!

The persistence of courtroom sketching as the primary means of documenting notable moments in court can actually be attributed to restrictions on photography and recording devices, due to concerns about disruption, privacy, and the potential for influencing witnesses or jurors. As a result, sketch artists are often the only visual reporters permitted inside courtrooms during proceedings. Sketch artists, therefore, serve as go-betweens, showing the viewer (you!) the operations of the legal system, capturing the drama of courtroom trials, and representing the criminal justice system in both dramatic and mundane detail.



The Boston Public Library Arts Department has recently accepted a collection of nearly 350 courtroom sketches by Massachusetts artist Joseph Connolly, dating from the 1970s to the 1990s. Throughout his career, Connolly frequently covered trials of Boston organized crime families and occasionally celebrities, such as Vanessa Redgrave, as a sketch artist for CBS News and several local newspapers. His drawings include lawyers and judges, defendants and audience, evidence and photographs of crime scenes presented in court.

Courtroom sketch artists work under considerable pressure, as they are accountable to same-day deadlines. Therefore, sketches must be quick and exact. Initial sketches are usually executed with charcoal or felt-tip marker; Connolly used charcoal and pastels to illustrate his figures. You can pinpoint areas of the drawings where Connolly had to make quick, decisive gestures in the nearly scribble-like depictions of clothing and hairstyles. These dynamic lines convey motion and action, capturing the tension in the courtroom and the hurried drawing process.

Some artists make mental notes to complete their work later, with finishing touches refined after leaving the courtroom. Connolly often made notes on the back of his drawings, or on the front corner, to remind himself of names and trial details, all elements to be completed in his studio later that day. The nearly impressionistic, washy areas where Connolly uses the pastels to depict clothing or background furniture are given more depth and detail in the studio. The sketches are therefore evolving documents, becoming more refined and realistic from conception to completion.


Courtroom sketching has a long-standing tradition dating back centuries, predating the invention of photography. One of the first “courtroom sketches” depicted Mary, Queen of Scots, entering the courtroom in 1586 to face charges of treason.

From the 16th century onwards, printing techniques such as engraving and lithography played a fundamental role in making courtroom scenes more accessible to the public. These widely available printing methods also played a significant part in shaping public perception and understanding of the legal system and high-profile trials. They allowed people who were unable to attend trials in person to still have a visual representation of what took place in the courtroom, thereby, to some extent, democratizing access to legal proceedings.

One of the most prolific courtroom artists of the nineteenth century was French printer Honoré Daumier (1808-1879). Inspired by 18th-century British artists, William Hogarth (1697-1764), Thomas Rowlandson (1756-1827), and James Gillray (1756-1815), Daumier was an expert in political and social illustration. He captured the French judicial system of the second half of the 19th century with satirical and cynical imagery, as can be seen in the extensive collection of caricatures of prominent Parisian lawyers  and judges in the Boston Public Library Print Department. Daumier produced more than 800 lithographs for the Charivari, the Paris daily paper.

Courtroom sketching in the United States can be dated back to the Salem Witch Trials, which took place in Massachusetts between February of 1692 and May of 1693. The first official record of courtroom sketches, though, is of the trial of John Brown, a white American radical abolitionist activist who was charged with treason and sentenced to death in 1859. Brown's trial was the first legal event in American history to receive intense and daily coverage. Courtroom artists depicted momentous and poignant moments, such as Brown lying wounded on a cot in court, and ascending the scaffold before being hanged.

These powerful images not only provided pictorial documentation of the trial, but also contributed to the construction of Brown's legend in American culture. Furthermore, they marked the foundation of a practice that has persisted, despite numerous technological advancements, highlighting the enduring power of visual storytelling in the courtroom.

Though courtrooms increasingly allow cameras, courtroom sketching remains a vital and respected form of visual journalism. They convey the living “essence” of the trial proceedings that can be missing from still photographs. Connolly brings the theater of the courtroom to life, capturing gestures, appearance, and relationships in a way that humanizes, and occasionally dramatizes, defendants, plaintiffs, lawyers, judges, and witnesses.