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The Early-20th-Century Painter Who Captured Solar Eclipses

In 1918, painter Howard Russell Butler precisely captured what the camera could not: the fiery colors of a solar eclipse.

Howard Russell Butler, "Solar Eclipse, Lompoc 1923" (1923), oil on canvas (gift of H. Russell Butler Jr., courtesy Princeton University Art Museum)
Howard Russell Butler, “Solar Eclipse, Lompoc 1923” (1923), oil on canvas (gift of H. Russell Butler Jr., courtesy Princeton University Art Museum)

“I generally asked for ten sittings of two hours each,” artist Howard Russell Butler said of his portrait process in 1926. “But all the time they would allow me on this occasion was 112 1/10 seconds.” The subject he was recalling was a solar eclipse, a fleeting celestial event he’d been able to paint in vibrant detail thanks to his quick notations on color, light, and tone.

Howard Russell Butler (1920) (via Archives of American Art/Wikimedia)
Howard Russell Butler (1920) (via Archives of American Art/Wikimedia)

Transient Effects: The Solar Eclipses and Celestial Landscapes of Howard Russell Butler, now at the Princeton University Art Museum, showcases his pioneering work ahead of the approaching August 21 solar eclipse. It was co-curated by Lisa Arcomano, manager of campus collections at the museum, and Rolf Sinclair, adjunct researcher at the Centro de Estudios Científicos in Valdivia, Chile, bringing together art and science. An accompanying online exhibition delves deeper into Butler’s work, eclipses in art historyearly space art, and eclipse expeditions.

“Butler was able to take enough shorthand notes during the brief time of totality to more accurately capture the range of brightness of the corona as well as the color of the prominences — something that photography could not do at that time,” Arcomano told Hyperallergic. “His scientific accuracy in observing a transient event with the naked eye still marvels scientists today.”

While efforts were made to photograph eclipses as early as 1842, there were limits to what the camera could record in the early 20th century. The fiery color of the corona of the sun, briefly visible during the totality of the eclipse, still eluded photography. When Butler was asked in 1918 to join the US Naval Observatory Eclipse Team in Oregon, he was already skilled at painting the “transient effects” of the Northern Lights and sunsets. He’d also graduated from Princeton University with a science degree in 1876, although he’d subsequently pursued a career in art.

Howard Russell Butler, "Solar Eclipse" (1925), oil on canvas (gift of H. Russell Butler Jr., courtesy Princeton University Art Museum)
Howard Russell Butler, “Solar Eclipse” (1925), oil on canvas (gift of H. Russell Butler Jr., courtesy Princeton University Art Museum)

The online exhibition has a page on Butler’s methodology, with a re-creation of his 1918 lecture at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (the audio is embedded above). In it, he described his technique:

My plan for the actual drawing was to sketch in the outline of the eclipse rapidly, jot down the color value present in the sky, moon, clouds, corona, hydrogen flames; each according to its numeric value in the scale, and after the eclipse was over fill them in at leisure. I did not bother with an accurate outline of sun and moon, preferring to depend on photographs for that. I used an easel protected by wind guards, white cardboard, and pencil, and with these I had ten drills preparatory to painting the eclipse.

Butler used those notes, as well as photographic negatives and positives (and a bit of artistic license), to paint the 1918 solar eclipse. It would not be his last. In 1923, he planned to travel to Mexico with the Lick Observatory Group, but illness kept him in the United States. As luck would have it, the astronomers down in Baja and San Diego had their views blocked by clouds, but Butler witnessed the eclipse in the overcast sky in Lompoc, California. In 1925, he stood on the roof of the Arrigoni Hotel in Middletown, Connecticut, taking notes on two pieces of cardboard nailed to the building’s cupola, and in 1932, he saw the total solar eclipse from his own home on the coast of Maine.

Howard Russell Butler, "Solar Eclipse" (1918–25), oil on canvas (triptych) (gift of H. Russell Butler Jr., courtesy Princeton University Art Museum)
Howard Russell Butler, “Solar Eclipse” (1918–25), oil on canvas (triptych) (gift of H. Russell Butler Jr., courtesy Princeton University Art Museum)

For many years, a triptych of his eclipse paintings, a version of which is included in Transient Effects, was displayed over the entrance to the Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History. (It was removed when the planetarium was rebuilt.) Although Butler was prolific as a portrait, seascape, and landscape artist (he made noted paintings of Zion National Park), his celestial scenes were among his most influential work. In addition to eclipses, he painted solar prominences, views from other planets, and the lunar surface. He died in 1934, decades before the first moon landing, but his extraterrestrial subjects remain remarkable in their accuracy, based on Butler’s precise eye for the details of celestial phenomena.

Howard Russell Butler, "Mars as seen from Deimos" (nd), oil on canvas (gift of H. Russell Butler Jr., courtesy Princeton University Art Museum)
Howard Russell Butler, “Mars as seen from Deimos” (nd), oil on canvas (gift of H. Russell Butler Jr., courtesy Princeton University Art Museum)
Howard Russell Butler, "Northern Lights, Ogunquit, Maine" (nd), oil on canvas (gift of H. Russell Butler Jr., courtesy Princeton University Art Museum)
Howard Russell Butler, “Northern Lights, Ogunquit, Maine” (nd), oil on canvas (gift of H. Russell Butler Jr., courtesy Princeton University Art Museum)

Transient Effects: The Solar Eclipses and Celestial Landscapes of Howard Russell Butler continues at the Princeton University Art Museum (Elm Drive, Princeton, NJ) through October 8.

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