17Apr2018

The Trouvelot Astronomical Drawings

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Comparing 19th Century Astronomical Drawings to Modern NASA Images

In the 1800s astronomers weren’t blessed with the incredible equipment that we have today. Neither did they have the internet as an immense research library to learn from.

However, astronomical drawings were extremely important in giving us an understanding of the planets and stars. Perhaps not all the depictions were entirely accurate in the way that today’s digital imagery is, but they were an essential way for astronomers to share and learn from their discoveries.

The Trouvelot Legacy

Étienne Léopold Trouvelot was a French astronomer, and also an artist and amateur entomologist. He fled with his family to the United States in 1852 following a coup d’etat in France under Louis Napoleon. In the 1870s he developed a love of astronomy after seeing a number of auroras. Over the course of his lifetime, he produced over 7,000 beautiful astronomical images, that proved to be invaluable to other researchers, scholars and enthusiasts.

He became an expert in how to draw the earth and other planets in our immediate solar system. In the days before digital printing, these paintings would have the been the only way for the general public to be able to see our neighbouring astronomical bodies looked like. Considering he was painting these with pastels, from viewing with an 1800s telescope, many of the images were remarkably accurate. Take his iconic painting of Saturn and it’s rings – this is very similar to images taken from the Hubble telescope.

Harvard College

Trouvelot’s drawings soon came to the attention of Joseph Winlock, who was the director of the observatory at Harvard College. He was so impressed that in 1872 he invited Trouvelot to join as a member of staff. This gave him access to far more advanced telescopes, allowing him to expand his illustrations. Trouvelot wrote over 50 advanced scientific papers.

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Trouvelot Astronomical Drawings/NY Public Library

These became of interest to other parties, and in 1875 he was invited by the US Naval Observatory to use their 26 inch refractor for a year. He had a huge interest in the sun, and during this time he discovered “veiled spots.” His painting “Group of Sun Spots and Veiled Spots” depicted this amazing scientific discovery, and enabled other astronomers to broaden their understanding of these phenomena.

Publishing the drawings

The volume of work that Trouvelot contributed to the field of astronomy has been immense. The American Academy of Arts and Science elected him a fellow in 1877. The Trouvelot Astronomical Drawings have never been published as a full collection, however in 1881, Charles Scribner and Sons reproduced 15 of the most impressive pastel illustrations in one volume. There are digital versions of these pictures that are available online.

The historical significance of these pictures is enormous – in particular the painting of the Great Comet. The drawings of the planets are also beautiful Art Deco works in their own right. Trouvelot’s contribution to the field of astronomy paved the way for future scientist to learn about the solar system. The astronomical drawings are an incredible record of the celestial objects that surround our planet.

Article submitted by our correspondent: Sally Writes

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