Total Eclipse of the Art


On Monday, the sun goes out over America, as a total solar eclipse passes over the width of the continental United States for the first time since 1918. It may be tempting, for some, to take a Macbethian reading of the country plunged into waking darkness for the first time since World War I — but now we know better (don’t we?) than to blame governments for the transit of heavenly bodies. A solar eclipse occurs whenever the moon passes between Earth and the sun; they are so predictable that NASA offers a search engine of future eclipses out to the year 3000.

Butler’s “Northern Lights, Ogunquit, Maine.” Credit Princeton University Art Museum

When that 1918 eclipse passed over the United States, a team of astronomers invited the artist Howard Russell Butler to join them at an observatory in Oregon, and to document what will appear in untold millions of blurry Instagrams on Monday afternoon. It was the first of four eclipses that he saw, and his paintings of lunar transits and other celestial phenomena are on view in “Transient Effects: The Solar Eclipses and Celestial Landscapes of Howard Russell Butler,” a small, lovely show at the Princeton University Art Museum here. His soft-colored, scrupulously accurate paintings of the occluded sun were among the first artistic depictions of individual eclipses, and they document just what an observer in a given spot would have seen. They offer a jolly curtain raiser for Monday’s eclipse, and also continue a recent vogue for exhibitions that marry art and science.

Butler (1856-1934) was a prosperous alumnus of Princeton’s science school, but in his 20s he turned to painting and arts advocacy. (He was president of Carnegie Hall for nearly a decade.) At first he concentrated on portraiture and landscape, but his scientific training came in handy when he beheld an aurora borealis off the coast of Maine. Rather than attempt to paint the streaks of green, turquoise and violet while outside, he quickly sketched the shapes and contours of the aurora and then made exacting notes on its shades. A century before Photoshop taught us to designate colors via numerical values of hue, saturation and luminosity, Butler employed formulas to designate what colors went where, and used both his notes and his sense memories to paint the cosmos.

A document detailing some of Butler’s notes from the 1918 total eclipse of the sun. Credit Princeton University Art Museum

That piece-by-piece approach was essential for Butler when he joined the eclipse exhibition of 1918. Like most of the Americans who will see the totality of Monday’s eclipse, Butler had never seen the sun obscured before, and he had only two minutes to watch the moon block all of its light except for the blazing corona. While a Navy officer stood by with a stopwatch, Butler worked in 10- or 20-second blocks as he drew the outline of the corona, assessed the colors of the sky and moon, and sketched the contours of the gaseous prominences that bloomed from the eclipse’s edge. Only then did he begin to paint.

Scrutinizing the exhibition. Credit

In Butler’s painting of the 1918 eclipse, a corona of burnished orange encases the void of the blacked-out sun, while the sky is mottled by gray-black clouds that recall the light effects of Frederic Edwin Church, Albert Bierstadt and other American landscape artists. It hangs here as part of a triptych of eclipse “portraits.” His painting of the solar eclipse of 1923, which Butler observed from California, includes a flash of yellow on the border of the black sun: one of the so-called Baily’s beads, a phenomenon just before the totality when the disappearing sun condenses into a single excrescence of blinding light. Two years later, in Connecticut, he saw another eclipse, this one resulting in especially long shafts of white that cut through the cloud cover. Those are the ectoplasmic wisps of the corona that scientists obsess over, and that more art-inclined observers may see as recalling the glowing halos of Renaissance painting.

Butler’s “Mars as Seen from Phobos.”

In an age before photography could fully capture solar eclipses, Butler’s paintings were hailed as not just a personal impression but as a vital scholastic tool. In the mid-1920s he began to consult for the American Museum of Natural History in New York, and he designed a large astronomical wing whose construction was scuppered by the Depression. During this time Butler painted a number of otherworldly celestial scenes: our blue marble of a planet seen from the craggy lunar surface, or a vermilion Mars as viewed from its own two moons. Here observation gives way to imagination — the surface of Deimos, the outer Martian satellite, appears as parched clay — but these too relied on models and calculations of atmosphere, shadow and light refraction.

He did allow himself one indulgence, though. At the bottom of “Mars as Seen From Phobos,” in the shadow of the red planet, is the outline of a human head. Presumably, it’s the artist’s own, painting en plein air where there’s no air to speak of.

If you can’t make it to Princeton, check out the robust website devoted to “Transient Effects,” which features not only Butler’s beguiling paintings but also centuries of art, not on view at the museum, engaged with eclipses and the relationship between heaven and earth. Long before Shakespeare set his eclipse upon Scotland, the Gospel of Luke described the lights going out after the death of Christ, and eclipses frequently appear in Crucifixion scenes by painters such as Matthias Grünewald (who may have seen an eclipse in 1502). Japanese printmakers used eclipses to heighten the spookiness of ghost scenes, while modern artists from Joseph Cornell to Roy Lichtenstein and Alma Thomas painted eclipses with both an awe for science and a freedom reserved for artists. They were, perhaps unwittingly, following in the tradition of Howard Russell Butler, for whom painting had a vocation as fundamental as the sun. (via The New York Times)