When former President Donald J. Trump’s eyes drifted shut as his former accountant testified during his civil fraud trial in New York State Supreme Court earlier this fall, no photographers captured the moment: Cameras were banned during the trial.
But several courtroom artists — an anachronistic group that continues to use chalky pastels to draw scenes from camera-free courtrooms to sell to TV stations and newspapers — were on it, erasing Mr. Trump’s pupils from their sketches.
“He’s nodding off!” the artist Isabelle Brourman whispered to a colleague.
Ms. Brourman, a 30-year-old newcomer, was not part of the dwindling coterie of commercial courtroom artists who make their livings selling cinematic, sometimes vaguely expressionistic trial drawings to news outlets. She is there for a different kind of art project: A mixed media artist, she has found herself drawn to big trials, sketching the Johnny Depp-Amber Heard trial in Virginia last year and showing the resulting works in a Los Angeles gallery, and now trying to capture the frenetic energy and political theater of the remarkable fraud trial of a former U.S. president.
“I wanted to bring something unregulated into such a regulated space,” Ms. Brourman said recently in the marble halls of the courthouse.
Her bleeding watercolors and rough linework are surrounded by snippets of legal arguments written into the margins around her subjects. The resulting images are breathtaking in scale and microscopic in detail. They are also highly opinionated.
As are her subjects.
Each day before the judge in the Trump case, Arthur F. Engoron, arrives, the sketch artists are besieged by powerful men. Lawyers have pleaded for slimmer bodies, witnesses have asked for more hair to obscure bald spots, and even the former president has occasionally seemed to strike a pose from across the defendant’s table.
Ms. Brourman often stands out in the usually staid court, showing up in outfits chosen by the fashion designer Mia Vesper, who has been dressing her for the trial.
“This is my delinquent behavior outfit,” Ms. Brourman said of the checkered red-and-black suit she wore to court that day, explaining that her outfits — which have included suits made of 1960s wedding blankets and Uzbek vegetable-dyed materials — had become a part of her project. “As this goes on, I’m becoming more aware of the performative qualities of making art in court.”
The project has its roots in Ms. Brourman’s own experiences with the legal system. She filed a lawsuit in 2022 against Bruce Conforth, a former professor at the University of Michigan, accusing him of sexually assaulting her; several other women accused him of sexual harassment. (Mr. Conforth has denied any wrongdoing.)
She initially set out to document the #MeToo movement’s legacy by making drawings of high-profile cases, and illustrated the Depp-Heard trial and the recent sentencing of Danny Masterson, who starred on the sitcom “That ’70s Show,” on rape charges. She showed her work from the Depp-Heard trial earlier this year in a Los Angeles gallery that was made up to resemble the courtroom, in a show that was called “Virginia Is for Lovers: The Official Courtroom Drawings From Depp v. Heard.”
But now she has moved on to other kinds of trials. Painting Mr. Trump’s trial, she has shifted her focus to courtroom theatrics. The resulting sketches have become more expressive, evoking the political spirit of Ben Shahn, the emotional frankness of Alice Neel and the fantastical style of Ralph Steadman.
Ms. Brourman moves fast when she sketches. During one court session in October, she used the bright colors of the stenographer’s outfit as her drawing’s focal point. Another regular focus of her work is New York’s attorney general, Letitia James, who brought the lawsuit accusing Mr. Trump and other defendants, including his companies and his sons, Donald Jr. and Eric, of fraudulently inflating the value of assets to obtain favorable loans and insurance deals.
“She is incredibly poised,” Ms. Brourman observed. “She stays in the same posture with her hands clasped and her head up for the entirety of the day.”
Ms. James has taken notice of her work. “Courtroom artists provide the public with an intimate view of some of our nation’s most poignant legal proceedings,” she said in a statement. “It is incredible to see Ms. Brourman capture these images in real time and how she brings the courtroom to life.”
A lawyer for Mr. Trump, Alina Habba, did not respond to an emailed request for comment. But last Thursday in court, Ms. Brourman said, the former president surveyed works by the courtroom artists and proclaimed hers “amazing” before adding: “Gotta lose some weight.”
The growing acceptance of cameras in more courtrooms — and the fact that many trials today are now televised or live streamed — has largely killed off the profession of courtroom artists. The field dates back to before the advent of photography, but it also grew again during the 20th century amid fears that cameras were turning courtroom proceedings into spectacles.
The concerns increased during the sensational 1935 trial of Bruno Richard Hauptmann, who was convicted in the kidnapping and murder of the aviator Charles Lindbergh’s toddler son, said Thomas Doherty, a cultural historian at Brandeis University. Newsreel companies were accused of flouting an agreement they had reached with the judge by filming dramatic testimony, causing a public uproar.
Two years later, the American Bar Association called for a prohibition on photography, which was adopted by most states, and extended in 1956 to include television.
“The hesitancy has been that photography would undermine the solemnity and dignity of the judicial process,” Mr. Doherty said.
But over time more states began to allow cameras in court, and the Bar Association formally repealed its prohibition in 1982.
During the Trump fraud trial, the judge has allowed still photographers into the courtroom at the very beginning of each day, before the proceedings begin. But once testimony starts, the sketch artists are the only ones there trying to capture imagery.
Ms. Brourman earned her seat covering the consequential trials in American politics on a lark. She went to the arraignment at another of Mr. Trump’s trials carrying her watercolors, but lacked the press pass that lets official sketch artists into the court.
Eventually the court decided to give her a chance based on her project proposal and samples of previous drawings.
“All courts are public,” said Al Baker, director of communications for the court. “Sketch artists who express a desire to work from court are vetted and Isabelle Brourman, while unique as an artist, represents no exception from a safety, security or practical perspective.”
Although there is growing recognition of courtroom artists in some spheres — the Library of Congress has a collection of their sketches — it is a shrinking world.
“The number of court artists has gone down over the years,” said Jane Rosenberg, 73, who draws for outlets like Reuters and CBS. “There used to be about 17 artists when I started more than 40 years ago. Now there are usually about two or three in the room.”
Ms. Rosenberg is easily identifiable thanks to a binocular contraption she straps around her head, which is attached to bifocal lenses that allow her to quickly turn between the judge’s magnified expression and her sketches. The device sometimes attracts attention: When she was sketching the 2021 trial of Ghislaine Maxwell, who was convicted of conspiring with Jeffrey Epstein to recruit, groom and sexually abuse underage girls, the defendant started sketching the courtroom artist.
The few court artists who remain live like country doctors, whisked away to hearings and arraignments at a moment’s notice for what typically amounts to little pay — just a few hundred dollars for a drawing.
“It is a very tight business,” the artist Christine Cornell explained during the Trump fraud trial, pausing to wipe the smudged blue pigments from her nose and lips. “The market has become smaller and more bitter.”
At first Ms. Brourman’s arrival sparked fears of competition. But the other women eventually warmed to her presence when they saw the jagged lines of her sketches, realizing she was not competing against them for commissions from media outlets that prefer realistic images.
“She blows me away every day,” Ms. Cornell said, admiring Ms. Brourman’s work.
Ms. Brourman has embraced an improvisational style to capture the big moments of the Trump trial, including when the former president stormed out of the courtroom on a day that he received a $10,000 fine for violating Justice Engoron’s gag order and his former lawyer, Michael Cohen, was cross-examined.
When Donald Trump Jr. testified, he made two requests of the sketch artists. He initially asked to look “handsome,” and later scrutinized their handiwork as he left the courtroom. The next day, he was more specific. He showed them a chiseled image of Sam Bankman-Fried, the curly-haired crypto mogul, that was widely shared online during his fraud trial. (It was apparently generated by artificial intelligence, not courtroom artists.)
“He looks like a superhero,” the Trump scion told the real-life artists. “Make me look sexy.”
Ms. Brourman and her colleagues deflected the request. Later, when she revealed her portrait of him, he looked like everyone else attending the trial: exhausted.