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

Étienne Trouvelot and the Lick Observatory

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. 
Trouvelot's illustrations speak to an effort, we suggest, to account for the motion of celestial bodies in ways that photographic images cannot, as in his images of meteors and comets. They even speak to an effort to bestow celestial bodies with "vitality," as in the illustrations of the Orion Nebula and of sun spots featured here.

In another letter to Holden, 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. He writes that the eye can detect more detail than the photographic lens, and challenges Holden to compare the detail in his drawings of the moon with the photographs of the moon produced at the Lick. Indeed, as indicated in the next section of this exhibit, astronomers were often frustrated with the camera's inability to capture the details of celestial bodies, especially gradations of light and the richness of shadows.

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.

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