Astronomy Before Photography

By Peggy Roalf   Thursday August 10, 2017

The French artist, astronomer and amateur entomologist Étienne Léopold Trouvelot (1827-1895) left his native France in 1855, moving with his wife to Cambridge, Massachusetts, where his two children were born. He supported his family as an artist and nature illustrator, also working as a lithographer. He soon became active with the local scientific community as a member of the Boston Society of Natural History. His interest in astronomical phenomena solidified after he witnessed and drew several spectacular auroras in the late 1870s.
Above: Étienne Léopold Trouvelot, Total eclipse of the sun. Observed July 29, 1879, Creston, Wyoming. Source: New York Public Library

Around that time Trouvelot was invited onto the staff of the Harvard College Observatory by the director, Joseph Winlock, who was impressed with the quality of his drawings. Using the Observatory’s 15-inch refractor telescope, Trouvelot made hundreds of drawings of celestial objects, including total eclipses of the sun. In 1875 he was invited to use the U. S. Naval Observatory’s 26-inch refractor, the largest in the world at the time.  The following year, a selection of Trouvelot’s pastels was exhibited alongside Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone, Heinz ketchup, and the right arm of the Statue of Liberty at the Centennial International exhibition of 1876 in Philadelphia.


Léopold Trouvelot, Aurora Boreals. As observed March 1, 1872, at 9h. 25 m. P.M. Source: New York Public Library

Although astronomical photography had been introduced several years earlier, Trouvelot felt the camera could not replace the human eye. It is estimated that he created more than 7,000 astronomical drawings, 15 of which were published as color chromolithographs by Charles Scribner’s & Sons as The Trouvelot Astronomical Drawings, in 1882.

Trouvelot wrote in the Introduction, “While my aim in this work has been to combine scrupulous fidelity and accuracy in the details, I have also endeavored to preserve the natural elegance and the delicate outlines peculiar to the objects depicted; but in this, only a little more than a suggestion is possible, since no human skill can reproduce upon paper the majestic beauty and radiance of the celestial objects.”


Léopold Trouvelot, The Planet Saturn. Observed on November 30, 1874. Source: New York Public Library

Scribner’s sold the portfolio in an edition of approximately 300 copies for $125, a large sum in at the time. Today, complete sets, few and far between, go for astronomical prices.

By 1882, Trouvelot had returned to France where he worked under difficult conditions at the Meudon Observatory, which housed a nearly 33-inch refractor coupled to a photographic refractor—the first double telescope of its size.

Currently in the public domain, Trouvelot’s drawings are offered by The New York Public Library for free, unrestricted use, including a hi-res tiff suitable for printing. Info


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