Law’s Picture Books

As the Wall Street Journal reported a few weeks back (along with the New Yorker and the Frankfurter Allgemeine), the two of us recently opened an exciting exhibition in New York about the history of illustrated law books.

The exhibit is called “Law’s Picture Books: The Yale Law Library Collection,” and it includes over 140 items drawn from Yale’s unique collection in the field—which Mike developed. The exhibit is accompanied by a 220-page, full-color exhibition catalogue, as well as a companion exhibit at Yale Law School.

Here are a few snaps from the gallery at the Grolier Club, near the corner of Park and 60th, where the exhibit is on display until November 18:

Over the next ten posts, we’d like to share some images from the exhibit with the readers of Concurring Opinions, and we’d like to reflect a bit on their meaning. We think they’re fascinating, mysterious, beautiful, and intriguing—and that they can teach us a lot about law.

We’ve organized our exhibit around ten functional purposes that law book illustrations can serve. What goals can illustrations achieve that are difficult to realize through legal prose alone? That was our underlying question. After all, law is a text-based enterprise, and language has its limits.

In the process of selecting books to display, we also realized something that surprised us: that an image’s purpose shapes the underlying dialogue that it has with its accompanying text—the conversation between word and image. It shapes where in the book it appears, how it refers to the text it illustrates, and how the text reflects back on the image.

Our functional organization, that is, brought out a dialectical relationship.

We pose some larger, abstract questions about law’s picture books in five companion videos to the exhibition, like this one:


Here, though, we’re going largely to stay away from the heavy stuff and ask a simple question: when they appear in books, what do law’s images do?

We’ll spend the next ten posts talking about that—and sharing some great pictures. We’ll also share some of the surprises the books contain—the same sorts of surprises that gave birth to this unique and extraordinary collection.

Consider it a digital version of the public tours we’ve been giving in the gallery lately:

We hope you enjoy it.

Mike Widener and Mark S. Weiner


To begin the tour, see here.

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