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Total Eclipse of the Art: Trouvelot and the 1878 Eclipse

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Total Eclipse of the Sun July 29, 1878. Chromolithograph, EL Trouvelot.

Are you traveling to see the eclipse? The eclipse has always drawn many to travel to get the most complete view of totality. Pictures of celestial phenomena like the eclipse can electrify the imagination, generate wonder, and spark that most human desire: to go out and see for yourself. For our era, the spectacular images from the Hubble Space Telescope, the wondrous details of Saturn from Cassini, or the realistic images from the Mars rover make us want to go further into the cosmos. For Americans in the post-Civil War years, the most iconic images of the cosmos were largely the work of one man: Étienne Leopold Trouvelot (1827-1895), an artist and amateur astronomer who produced incredible images of the heavens.

Trouvelot had a particular interest in the sun and observed it often through his 6.5-inch Merz refractor telescope. His aim was to view and draw what he saw, including sun spots and phenomena like the eclipse. Trouvelot traveled with a party from the United States Naval Observatory to 'separation’, a desolate outpost in Wyoming Territory near modern-day Creston, to observe the Eclipse of July 29, 1878. The 2017 totality path will pass just north of Creston, Wyoming, but will be a near full eclipse 139 years later in the same spot. Trouvelot's visual account gives us a spectacular view of the event. 

Total Eclipse of the Sun July 29, 1878. Chromolithograph, EL Trouvelot.
Close up, the finger-like protuberance  gives particular notice to the flaming sun beneath. 

We are fortunate to have a complete set of his astronomical plates as part of the Rare Book Collection at NYPL, including the wonderful Eclipse of 1878.  The images were made through the process of chromolithography. Trouvelot used this planographic printing process, which involves applying a water-resistant medium to lithography stones, to stunning effect.  Each color or tint necessitated a separate stone to be printed, with the complexity of the method adding richness and texture to the finished product. The stones were durable and allowed for the printing of hundreds of images. His velvety blacks and radial lines offer a highly stylized nod to romanticism and the sublime, but he captures the wonder of the full eclipse, even if it is not a technically correct rendering. The finger-like protuberance against the odd greenish hue at the middle gives particular notice to the flaming sun beneath, Trouvelot’s observational record transforms the eclipse of 1878 into a time bound artwork depicting the eclipse as eerie, wondrous, and amazing. Think of this imagery as you try to capture the nuance and uncanny nature of the blocked sun with your iPhone next week. Happy hunting, astronomers. 

Total Eclipse of the Sun.  July 29, 1878. Chromolithograph, EL Trouvelot.
Velvety blacks and radial lines of the chromolithograph. 

Sources and more information: 

Bendheim, Fred. “The Art and Science of Etienne Trouvelot.” The Lancet, June 16, 2001, Volume 357, Issue 9272, Pages 1897-1988.

New York Public Library. Point: An NYPL Digital Publication, "E.L. Trouvelot’s Astronomical Drawings". Volume 1, Ed. 2.

Rosenfeld, Randall and William Sheehan. “How an Artist Brought the Heavens to Earth.” Astronomy. Vol. 39, No. 1 (January issue), pp. 52-57.

Trouvelot, E. L., The Trouvelot Astronomical Drawings. New York, C. Scribner's Sons, 1881-1882.

Trouvelot, E. L. The Trouvelot Astronomical Drawings Manual. New York, C. Scribner's Sons, 1881-1882.

 

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