Reading Nature, Observing Science: Examining Material Practices in the Lick Observatory Archives and Kenneth S. Norris Papers

Illustrating the Cosmos

Our research in the Lick Observatory archives has uncovered correspondence and sketches from Étienne Trouvelot, a French artist and astronomer known for his whimsical illustrations of celestial objects. Trouvelot worked with the Lick Observatory's first director, Edward S. Holden, at the U.S. Naval Observatory while Holden was a professor of astronomy there. It seems they continued to communicate throughout Holden's tenure at the Lick. 

As an artist and a scientist, Trouvelot occupies an interesting position within the nineteenth-century discussion of objectivity. In one letter to Holden, not displayed here, he suggests that a good observer must possess both "fire and ice." It seems that for Trouvelot, interfacing with the cosmos was both an aesthetic experience and an act of cool judgement; we can perhaps sense this tension between sensation and sensibility in his illustrations. In another letter to Holden, displayed here, he urges Holden to consider the capacities of the eye and the advantages of observing the cosmos directly through the telescope, rather than relying secondarily on the images produced by the camera. 

An oversized set of prints of Trouvelot's drawings (approximately 2' by 3'), two of which are displayed in case 3 and case 4, was gifted to the Lick Observatory by John R. Jarboe in 1887. The set originally consisted of 15 plates, but five have been lost. W.H. Wright, a later director of the Lick, wrote in 1937 that the illustrations "were of little scientific value and were finally relegated to a store room." The remaining prints are accessible through UCSC Special Collections, or they can be viewed online through the digital collections of the New York Public Library.

Despite Wright's assessment of the value of the prints, we wonder how Trouvelot's relationship with the Lick ultimately impacted the illustrations and photographs created there. Holden created astronomical illustrations in his own scrapbook, even though he ultimately held that photographic images are much more objective and factual than illustrations. The archives also contain several illustrations created by other astronomers at the Lick Observatory; displayed here are illustrations and sketches by James Keeler and J.M. Schaeberle, as well as images collected in the archives from astronomers at other observatories.


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