Transient Effects explores a remarkable union of scientific observation and artistic imagination. In 1918, Howard Russell Butler (1856–1934)—a portrait and landscape artist and graduate of Princeton University’s first school of science—painted with impressive accuracy a total solar eclipse, an astronomical event that has been a source of mystery and fascination across cultures and epochs. The methodology Butler used to paint the 1918 eclipse was informed by his years as a landscape and portrait painter, capturing the likenesses of restless sitters and the changing sea along his beloved Maine shoreline. His reputation as a painter able to translate transient effects brought about an invitation to accompany the 1918 U.S. Naval Observatory Eclipse Team to Salem, Oregon. The scientific accuracy of his work was heralded by his fellow team members as well as by other astronomers who had seen the eclipse firsthand. Butler’s experience in Salem would propel him to paint the 1923 eclipse in California, the 1925 eclipse in Connecticut, and the 1932 eclipse, which he was able capture from the backyard of his studio in Maine.
The eclipse paintings were a tour de force, providing astronomers and the public with perhaps the best record of eclipses at the time, and have long been a source of interest and study for scientists. A total solar eclipse lasts at most a few minutes and is visible only along a path less than a hundred miles wide, forcing observers to travel to remote locales to view them. It is only during a total eclipse, when the direct light from the sun is cut off, that the cloud of hot gases that surrounds the sun—the solar corona—is visible to the naked eye. Butler made shorthand notes in the brief moment of totality that enabled him to create an accurate rendition of the eclipse with the aid of photographic negatives and prints. His carefully thought-out process was based on color theory that he outlined in his book Painter and Space; or, The Third Dimension in Graphic Art (1923). As Butler’s reputation for capturing astronomical phenomena grew, he was invited to become a consultant to the American Museum of Natural History, where he made a number of paintings on astronomical themes for their fledgling educational programs. In 1930 the museum installed a triptych designed by Butler that included his eclipses of 1918, 1923, and 1925. (It is a larger version of the triptych that Butler’s son gave to Princeton University, seen in this exhibition.) The Museum of Natural History’s triptych was commissioned for an ambitious seven-story astronomy hall that Butler designed but which was never built; the triptych was later mounted over the entrance to Hayden Planetarium, built in 1935, where it became well known to visitors.
Butler made remarkably prophetic paintings well in advance of human achievement in space exploration. He did several moonscapes in the 1920s showing what it would be like to stand on the moon’s surface, looking up at Earth high above. It was not until 1969 that astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin actually saw such a sight. Butler also made several paintings that speculate what Mars would look like if viewed from its two tiny satellites. For these celestial landscapes, Butler depended as much on his artistic imagination as his scientific acumen.
The idea for this exhibition came about through a series of unexpected discoveries and shared interests. After arriving on campus in 2008 to become Princeton’s first manager of campus collections, I was approached by the Museum’s curator of Asian art, Cary Liu, who implored me to find several astronomically themed paintings he recalled having seen as an undergraduate walking the corridor between Fine and Jadwin Halls. With a little detective work, Cary and I were able to track them to an electrical closet in the basement of Fine Hall, were they had been placed during a building renovation, thoughtfully saved by Aric Davala, who is now the Museum’s facilities manager. The moment we laid eyes on them, we knew they were special. They elicited childhood memories of school trips to planetariums as well as that feeling of wonder when you look up to the sky. It became my first priority to conserve the paintings and find homes for them on campus, which I eventually did at Whitman College and, later, at Firestone Library.
Several years after discovering the paintings, I was approached by Rolf Sinclair, a physicist who was giving a talk about Butler’s astronomical paintings to the Inspiration of Astronomical Phenomena (INSAP) and came to Princeton for research. Listening to Rolf talk about the paintings from a scientific perspective revealed a fascinating and layered story about the artist and his work. Not long after that, astronomer Jay Pasachoff, the Field Memorial Professor of Astronomy at Williams College and chair of the International Astronomical Union’s Working Group on Solar Eclipses, asked to see Butler’s paintings in preparation for a paper he was also presenting to INSAP, as did Richard Woo, a senior research scientist emeritus at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology, who was writing an article about visual perception and the solar corona. So many scientists wanted to see Butler’s paintings, it became apparent that Butler needed to be celebrated and recognized for his contributions. We are delighted to present this exhibition and accompanying website in advance of the next total solar eclipse on August 21.
Manager of Campus Collections