The Brilliant 19th-Century Astronomical Drawings of Étienne Léopold Trouvelot

The first pho­to of the moon was tak­en in 1850 by Louis Daguerre, from whom the daguer­rotype gets its name. We have no idea what that first image looked like as it was lost in a stu­dio fire. But the need to cat­a­log the heav­ens with mod­ern tools had start­ed, and was both fas­ci­nat­ing as it was lack­ing. Into this evo­lu­tion of sci­ence and art stepped Éti­enne Léopold Trou­velot, the French immi­grant, liv­ing in the States, an ama­teur sci­en­tist and an illus­tra­tor. He would dis­miss pho­tog­ra­phy of the heav­ens as “so blurred and indis­tinct that no details of any great val­ue can be secured.” And by illus­trat­ing instead by he saw through tele­scopes, he secured a place in art *and* sci­ence his­to­ry.

Trou­velot might have thought his sci­en­tif­ic papers would be his lega­cy. He wrote fifty in his life­time. Instead it is his rough­ly 7,000 illus­tra­tions of plan­ets, comets, and oth­er phe­nom­e­na that still please us to this day. The New York Pub­lic Library has put 15 of his best up on their site, and over at this page, you can com­pare what Trou­velot saw—-the great astronomer Emma Con­verse called Trou­velot the “prince of observers”—-to pho­tos from NASA’s archive.

Even if his Mars is a bit fan­ci­ful, look­ing translu­cent like a fish egg, his under­stand­ing of the plan­et echoes in the fol­low­ing cen­tu­ry of sci-fi para­noia. Some­thing strange must be there, he sug­gests.

Har­vard hired him to sketch at their college’s obser­va­to­ry, and he used pas­tels to bring the plan­ets to life. Engrav­ing or ink would not have worked as well as these soft shapes and deter­mined lines. His ren­der­ing of the moon sur­face is accu­rate but also fan­ci­ful, like whipped cream. And his sun spots might not be accu­rate, but they repli­cat­ed the god-like forces at work on its tumul­tuous sur­face. His Sat­urn is the most real­is­tic of them all. Even the NASA image doesn’t look too dif­fer­ent to Trouvelot’s art.

These images also help reha­bil­i­tate Trouvelot’s oth­er legacy—-the dread­ed Gyp­sy Moth. Before his stint as ama­teur sci­en­tist, he was also an ama­teur ento­mol­o­gist, and while research­ing silk­worms and silk pro­duc­tion, acci­den­tal­ly let Euro­pean gyp­sy moths into North Amer­i­ca, where they wreaked hav­oc on the forests of North Amer­i­ca. Saturn’s rings may look the same back then as they do now, but so does the dam­age of the gyp­sy moth, which accord­ing to Wikipedia is up to $868 mil­lion in dam­ages per year.

via Kot­tke

Relat­ed Con­tent:

A 9th Cen­tu­ry Man­u­script Teach­es Astron­o­my by Mak­ing Sub­lime Pic­tures Out of Words

Joce­lyn Bell Bur­nell Changed Astron­o­my For­ev­er; Her Ph.D. Advi­sor Won the Nobel Prize for It

A 16th-Cen­tu­ry Astron­o­my Book Fea­tured “Ana­log Com­put­ers” to Cal­cu­late the Shape of the Moon, the Posi­tion of the Sun, and More

Ted Mills is a free­lance writer on the arts who cur­rent­ly hosts the Notes from the Shed pod­cast and is the pro­duc­er of KCR­W’s Curi­ous Coast. You can also fol­low him on Twit­ter at @tedmills, and/or watch his films here.

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