In August, a courtroom sketch of Steve Bannon, President Trump’s former chief strategist, went viral on social media. Masked, handcuffed, and sunburned, Bannon is seen facing a federal judge in Manhattan on August 20 over charges of allegedly defrauding donors to a crowdfunding campaign for the US-Mexico border wall. (He denied the allegations, calling the investigation a “political hit job.”)
The viral pastel was made by Jane Rosenberg, a courtroom artist of 40 years who has sketched numerous high-profile trials throughout her career. With cameras forbidden in federal trials, her depiction of a distraught, red-faced Bannon circulated through media outlets around the world and gained much praise on social media.
Media outlets like Reuters and others used a cropped version of Rosenberg’s sketch to close up on Bannon’s distressed expression. The full sketch reveals a split TV screen featuring Bannon alongside a federal judge as the court appearance was live-streamed to attendants in a separate room to maintain social distancing. At the bottom of the sketch, court clerks are seen following the arraignment on the two-tiled screen.
Rosenberg is a member of a small group of New York courtroom artists, who are all women, with classical training and decades of experience in their field. A selection of their work, including more than 60 of Rosenberg’s sketches, is currently on display at the lobby of the United States District Court on 500 Pearl Street in New York, where Bannon was arraigned. Rosenberg’s work was also featured in the exhibition Drawing Justice: The Art of Courtroom Illustration at the Library of Congress in 2017 as part of 98 courtroom sketches that date back to 1964.
Over the course of her career, Rosenberg has depicted the dramatic trials of El Chapo, Harvey Weinstein, Michael Cohen, Bill Cosby, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev (better known as the Boston Marathon Bomber), and Mark David Chapman, who shot and killed John Lennon in 1980. She has also sketched the court appearances of the sex offender Jeffrey Epstein and his alleged accomplice Ghislaine Maxwell.
Rosenberg joined Hyperallergic for a conversation about her recent viral sketch, her long career as a courtroom artist, and her thoughts on the standing of courtroom drawings in today’s art world.
Hyperallergic: What was your impression of Bannon? He appeared unusually tanned.
Jane Rosenberg: Oh, man. The screen monitor first showed him beet-red! All I could see is a beet with white hair and a mask. So red. When he sat down and got closer to the camera, I could finally see the details of his face. You can see in the sketch that it’s a red face with bright highlights.
H: How long did it take you to complete the sketch?
JR: The arraignment was very short, less than 10 minutes. I had to finish the background outside the courtroom. It was stressful.
H: Was it harder for you to sketch from a video instead of being in the same room with the suspect?
JR: It was much harder to sketch from a screen. It was blurry, dark, and hard to see. Ghislaine Maxwell’s hearing was the same. I prefer sketching in person.
H: Let’s go back to the beginning. How did you become a courtroom artist?
JR: I was a starving artist for many years after college until I discovered that this is something I wanted to do. I went to court and practiced to put together a portfolio. I asked the court officer where the artists sit, and he invited me to join them the following week.
H: How do you deal with your personal feelings when tasked with depicting difficult cases or portraying despicable characters? Do such thoughts come to your mind while making the sketches?
JR: I try to be neutral, but I have been to trials when I cried after hearing a horrific testimony. Sometimes I see gruesome crime photos or people who are just so horrible. But I have to stay neutral and deliver the visuals as they are. I can’t draw with tears in my eyes.
H: Do you think that courtroom sketches get enough recognition as a form of art?
JR: Unfortunately, courtroom art doesn’t get enough recognition from the art world. We are figurative artists, mostly with classical training, who work under a lot of pressure. But things have changed with social media. I was told that the sketch went viral on Twitter, so it’s not as bad as it was before. In the early years, a gallery would pooh-pooh courtroom art.
H: Why do you say to people who wonder why we still need courtroom sketches in today’s age when every mobile phone comes with an advanced camera?
JR: Well, they tried to let cameras into courtrooms, and it immediately became a media circus. The courtroom shouldn’t be a place where people are play-acting to cameras. Also, many people are camera-shy, including myself. If I were a witness testifying, I would be really uncomfortable with a camera. Other than that, I think some people prefer art over photos.
H: Do you enjoy your job?
JR: It’s very stressful and hard, but I do love it. I like to draw people. Before getting this job, I was a portrait artist drawing people in the streets of Provincetown. I thought that court sketches would be more interesting, and they are.
I feel safer doing that in courtrooms with court marshals providing protection. It’s not like sketching people in the subway where some of them could get angry. It’s also nice to be needed and called in.