Observation is fundamental to scientific inquiry. Scientists use their senses as well as a variety of instruments and tools to gather information about the physical world and its phenomena, subjecting these observations to reason and experimentation in order to generate new knowledge. But what happens when observation fails, when a phenomenon cannot be adequately perceived by the senses, and no technology exists to make it fully visible and available to scientific scrutiny? Such was the problem faced by the artist Howard Russell Butler, who in 1918 was commissioned by the U.S. Naval Observatory to paint a picture of a solar eclipse, a complex and transitory astronomical event that the unaided eye cannot fully perceive. In so doing, he joined the ranks of many others, artists and scientists alike, who over the centuries have struggled to translate un-seeable or fleeting phenomena into visual form.
Rachael DeLue, associate professor of art history at Princeton University, considers Butler’s attempt to paint solar eclipses alongside other, similar endeavors in art and science to picture what the eye cannot see.