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

Étienne Trouvelot and the Lick Observatory

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. The prints in the above slideshow and found elsewhere on the site are from the digital collections of the NYPL.

This page has paths:

Contents of this path: