The Eclipse Paintings: 1918, 1923, 1925, 1932

“Who is not interested in the total eclipse of the sun? He who has once seen such an eclipse can never forget it: the slow but graduate obscuration of the sun, the darkness covering the face of the Earth even at noontime, and the glorious sight that meets the eye during the few short minutes of totality.”

Samuel Alfred Mitchell, director, Leander McCormick Observatory, University of Virginia, who led the U.S. Naval Observatory Eclipse Expeditions of 1918, which Howard Russell Butler accompanied.

At a time when photography could not yet capture the nuances of the eclipsed sun, Butler’s paintings were a tour de force, providing astronomers and the public with perhaps the best record of eclipses at the time.

Because of their remarkable accuracy in capturing the eclipse of the sun, Butler’s eclipse paintings have long been a source of fascination and study for scientists. A total solar eclipse lasts at most a few minutes at an observing site, and since it is visible only along a path a few tens of miles wide, observers must travel to the often-remote locales where an eclipse can be seen. 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 faint solar corona) is visible to the naked eye. Butler was able to make enough notes in the brief time of totality to enable him to create an accurate rendition of the eclipse with the aid of negatives and photographic prints taken at the time.