Drawings & Early Photographs
‘Thinking with (and in) pictures’ — for instance, drawing a diagram to organize one’s thoughts rather than arguing in syllogistic form — is characteristic not only of the technological ‘art,’ but also of other branches of the practical sciences, such as mathematics, software engineering, physics or botany. Astronomy in particular offers a rich inventory of specialties in which visual representations play a key role: Enormous efforts have been invested in compiling ever better atlases of the heavens, catalogues of photometric spectrum line profiles, detailed drawings and classifications of sunspots, records of solar prominences or terrestrial aurorae — the list goes on.1
That astronomical drawing has a long and rich history, going back to stone age petroglyphs, is not surprising; for almost as long as humans have been fascinated by the night sky they have been compelled to create representations of the heavens. What is perhaps more surprising is that even in our present age of orbiting observatories, charge-coupled devices and sophisticated image processing software, astronomical sketching remains a living tradition — one that is linked to amateur astronomy with its broad appeal.
In his bestselling book Seeing in the Dark: How Amateur Astronomers Are Discovering the Wonders of the Universe, author Timothy Ferris interviews Stephen James O’Meara, a contemporary observer famed among amateur astronomers for his startling visual acuity. O’Meara’s resumé includes such feats as the visual estimation of the rotation period of Uranus to within six minutes of its actual value, as later determined through measurements made by the Voyager spacecraft. Although he has collaborated with academic astronomers and has published in scholarly journals, O’Meara remains devoted to visual observation and manual sketching — he is, as he says, “a nineteenth-century observer in the twenty-first century.”2
One of the great achievements in the tradition of astronomical drawing is the work of nineteenth-century French immigrant and Boston resident Étienne Léopold Trouvelot (1827-1895). Besides being a talented artist, Trouvelot had a passionate interest in the natural sciences and joined the staff of the Harvard Observatory in the 1870s after taking an interest in astronomical phenomena. He made a number of pastel drawings which Scribner published as a portfolio of chromolithographs in 1882.
Although photography was already being used to record astronomical observations, Trouvelot insisted his drawings were superior and worked closely with Armstrong and Company, a maker of fine artistic lithographs, to translate them into prints.3 The prints are a rare example of creative collaboration between artist, scientist and publisher, coming at a time when such extravagances were about to become unthinkable in the new era of cheap photographic reproduction. While not all of Trouvelot’s drawings are scientifically accurate, they do provide a glimpse into another person’s perceptions that photographs do not convey. It thus seems appropriate to resist the urge to editorialize on Trouvelot’s work; instead we have chosen to describe his drawings using Trouvelot’s own words, taken from the Astronomical Drawings Manual that accompanied their publication.
A comparison of the Trouvelot drawings with photographs of similar vintage makes an interesting study. There are many such photographs in the special collections of the Shapiro Science Library, and they will be added to this section at a later date.
1 Hentschel, Klaus. “Drawing, engraving, photographing, plotting, printing: Historical studies of visual representations, particularly in astronomy.” The Role of Visual Representations in Astronomy: History and Research Practice, ed. Klaus Hentschel and Axel D. Wittman. Frankfurt am Main: Verlag Harri Deutsch, 2000. 18.
2 Ferris, Timothy. Seeing in the Dark: How Amateur Astronomers Are Discovering the Wonders of the Universe. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2002. 42-48.
3 BUAG 1985 62.