Butler’s Northern Lights

What are Northern Lights?

The sun emits bursts of “plasma”—clouds of energetic charged atomic particles—called the solar wind that travel through space and impinge on the Earth’s magnetic field, which then guides them to the north and south polar regions. Here they excite the gas high in the Earth’s atmosphere, which then radiates light in various colors. High in the sky at night, these lights can be quite spectacular. They are called the Northern Lights, or Aurora Borealis (literally “northern dawn”) in the northern hemisphere. The Northern Lights are usually seen only near the Arctic Circle, but at times they can be seen further south, including in the continental U.S. (There is a counterpart in the southern hemisphere called the Southern Lights, or Aurora Australis.)

Howard Russell Butler, American, 1856–1934
Northern Lights, Ogunquit, Maine, 1919
Oil on canvas 
Princeton University Art Museum, gift of H. Russell Butler, Jr.

Butler captured the Aurora Borealis on August 11, 1919, while he was sketching a moonlit scene of Bald Head Cliff off the coast of Maine, where he had a studio. The following day, he made the first of two paintings based on that sketch. (Another copy is in the collection of the American Museum of Natural History.)


Listen to a reading of his description of this spectacular event, published in Natural History in 1919:

“I had just finished my sketch of the cliff when (about a quarter to ten) this wonderful display suddenly appeared, flooding the heavens with light. Vertical shafts soon rose near the horizon in almost every direction and reached to the zenith, where they united in complicated weaving. The view northward over the cliff was particularly fine. Arches appeared from which additional shafts ascended. The colors varied from pale green to rose. The intense illumination lasted for about 20 minutes. I was most fortunate in being in such an excellent position for observation and in having my sketching materials with me; also having my foreground already completed. I was working on dark grey paper with black and white, with no light but that of the moon and the aurora itself. While this enabled me to record the values—lights and shades—for colors I had to rely on formulas, as when painting the eclipse.”

Natural History (1921)