A look back at nearly 40 years of courtroom sketches

Nearly 40 years after Jane Rosenberg sold her first courtroom sketch to NBC, we found her at a federal courthouse in downtown Manhattan waiting to draw a sentencing, in a building now displaying more than 70 of her sketches from the last four decades in its marbled lobby.

"Well, since the day I started, I thought: I'm going to be out of business any day," Jane said. "I'm past retirement age but I'm going to keep going as long as I can."

But before she drew Don King or John Gotti, Giuliani or Madeoff, Jane was a little girl growing up in Brooklyn.

"My mother says I drew my first portrait at age three," she said.

Jane majored in art in college, then spent years drawing portraits on the street before attending a talk by a courtroom artist at the Society of Illustrators.

"I saw this lecture," she said, "and I thought: I'd love to do that but it looks so hard."

So, Jane started practicing.

"There were a lot of prostitutes at night court and I sketched them."

She built a portfolio and in 1980 sold that first sketch.

"I went home and watched my little black and white TV," she said. "I called my parents: 'Mom, I'm on TV.' It was pretty exciting."  

In the years since, Jane estimates she's sold thousands of sketches.

"I have most of them in my apartment, stacked to the ceilings," she said.

"Our most interesting way of preserving what goes on in the courtroom," Southern District of New York Chief Judge Colleen McMahon said of courtroom sketches.

In her 43 years in and out of courtrooms, McMahon's appeared in many of those sketches.

"I have loved some of them," she said. "There are one or two that I look at and say: 'Huh?' Everybody always has me with earrings. And you can always tell its me if for no other reason than the curly red hair."

Judicial Conference of the United States policy mandates no cameras in court, as a large body of evidence suggests cameras can intimidate some witnesses and jurors, leaving the individual freeze frames chosen and captured by Jane and her colleagues as the lone visuals from often many hours of courtroom proceedings.

"That gives you the gestalt," McMahon said, "that gives you the overall sense of what was going on in the courtroom."

"I can be working all day on some sketch," Jane said, "and then suddenly somebody will start crying and then there goes [that]. I wasted that whole time."

In more recent years, Jane's found herself surprised by the amount of feedback her drawings have received.

"Well, nowadays, we're living in the social media world," she said. 'I know where you're going to go next."

In August of 2015, Patriots quarterback Tom Brady appeared in federal court for a hearing on his role in deflating footballs before a playoff game. Jane drew Brady. And social media savaged her depiction of the three-time NFL MVP and many-time Super Bowl champ, turning it into a meme that never went away.

"I didn't used to get this much feedback," she said. "I don't want to know about it anymore."

But Jane does want to keep working.

"Until I can't or I'm kicked out," she said.

She now calls herself "a news junkie" and likely understands the inner workings of a courthouse as well as any litigator.

"I didn't even know what 'arraignment' was back then," she said.

Jane married a lawyer she met on the job.

"He claims I sketched him."

And she continues to thrive on ever-tightening deadlines with the same handmade pastel box ("it's now held together with gaffer tape") in a profession in which few others have been able to survive.

"In New York City, there's five maybe," she said.

The federal court system seems to constantly review its no-cameras policy and Jane expects this career she chose to soon no longer exist, as she has since she started sketching judges, defendants, plaintiffs and attorneys many decades ago.

"It's not a great field to go into because it's probably going to disappear," Jane said, "but then I've been saying it for 40 years so who knows."

"I hope we never lose the court artists," McMahon said. "The work they do is so extraordinary and so unique, so much a part of the history of jurisprudence in the United States."

"I don't know if I ever felt like I was performing a civic duty," Jane said. I'm still an artist. I can't believe I'm still surviving as one, but I am."