Transient Effects: The Solar Eclipses and Celestial Landscapes of Howard Russell Butler

Howard Russell Butler, American, 1856–1934 Solar Eclipse, Lompoc 1923 1923 Oil on canvas Princeton University, gift of H. Russell Butler, Jr. PP351Berenice Abbott once asked, “Can science and art unite?” She answered, “My own conviction is that not only is this possible—it’s necessary.”

On August 21, 2017, the first total solar eclipse of the 21st century visible in the United States will occur. To celebrate this sublime astronomical event, we have produced Transient Effects, a multimedia online exhibition that focuses on the remarkable career of Howard Russell Butler (1856–1934) —a portrait and landscape artist as well as a graduate of Princeton University’s first school of science—who painted a new kind of portrait of a very unusual sitter: the total solar eclipse.

On June 8, 1918, the U.S. Naval Observatory organized an eclipse expedition from Baker City, Oregon. Butler, who was known for his ability to record transient phenomena, was asked to join the expedition to paint the eclipse. At a time when photography could not yet capture the nuances of the eclipsed sun, Butler’s painting of the eclipse was considered a tour de force, providing astronomers and the public with perhaps the best record of eclipses at the time. Butler would go on to paint the eclipses of 1923, 1925, and 1932, and, as his reputation for astronomical subjects became better known, he was invited to consult for the American Museum of Natural History, where his celestial paintings would dazzle and inform the public for years.

Transient Effects explores Butler’s life and work through the contexts of the science surrounding solar eclipses and the history of artistic portrayals of the eclipse from around the world. Experts from both the sciences and the arts lend their perspectives to these discussions, allowing visitors to piece together their own understandings of the relationship between art and science. After all, as physicist emeritus Rolf Sinclair describes, Butler’s astronomical artwork and process demonstrate “how an artist answers a scientific question.”

We hope you will explore the site and the many portals it offers for new discoveries.