Can’t wait for the Aug. 21 eclipse? While you look ahead, go back in time with the paintings of Howard Russell Butler.
In the early part of the 20th century, Butler painted solar eclipses. His eclipse-related images and the tale of his storied career in scientific art share center stage in a new exhibition at the Princeton University Art Museum.
“Transient Effects” explores how a science-obsessed artist brought his fascination with one of nature’s most fleeting phenomena onto canvas.
Today, we take photos and coverage of solar eclipses for granted. In Butler’s time, however, photographers weren’t able to capture eclipses with the precision and high-tech equipment that exist today. So he tried his hand at it. He went with the U.S. Naval Observatory’s eclipse-viewing team to Oregon in 1918 to capture the last total solar eclipse that crossed the entire continental United States — and his companions said the painting that Butler created in just hours before the eclipse faded from memory is extremely accurate.
The pioneering painter didn’t just develop a special artistic shorthand to capture the precious seconds of the moon’s transit in front of the sun; he also spent much of his career with his eyes on the skies. Today, his paintings are considered among the finest eclipse records of the time. The exhibition also explores how Butler translated into art other ever-changing phenomena such as the ocean and the northern lights.
If you can’t make it to the free exhibition, don’t worry: It’s online, too, with a website that features information on the upcoming eclipse, an overview of eclipses in art and more details on Butler’s life and celestial landscapes. It’s a reminder that the seeming magic of solar eclipses has awed and inspired skywatchers for generations.
“Transient Effects” closes Oct. 15.