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, 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, 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.

The oversized set of prints of Trouvelot's drawings (approximately 2' by 3') was gifted to the Lick Observatory in x. These prints are accessible through UCSC Special Collections, or they can be viewed online through the digital collections of the New York Public Library.

The archives also feature several illustrations created by astronomers at the Lick Observatory. Additionally, in their personal scrapbooks and copybooks, Lick astronomers often recorded their observations both numerically and pictorially, using sketches, light distribution charts, and even vividly descriptive notes alongside measurement logs to capture an image of what they were seeing in the night sky. Here you can see visual materials created by Holden, James Keeler, and James Schaeberle, as well as images collected in the archives from astronomers at other observatories. 

Questions you might consider as you move through this path: What impact did the ideas and images offered by artists like Trouvelot have on the way astronomers at the Lick perceived the cosmos? Can astronomical observation be purely objective, freed from aesthetic experience and aesthetic expectations? How are representations of celestial objects--then, as now--both objective and artistic records? 


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