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Pioneering paintings of eclipses and the Solar System on view this summer at the Princeton University Art Museum
Howard Russell Butler, American, 1856–1934, Solar Eclipse, 1925. Oil on canvas. Princeton University, gift of H. Russell Butler Jr.

PRINCETON, NJ.- On August 21, 2017, the first solar eclipse of this century will be visible in the U.S. To celebrate this remarkable historical event, the Princeton University Art Museum has organized an exhibition of solar eclipses and other astronomical subjects by the influential American painter Howard Russell Butler (1856–1934). In 1918, Butler unveiled a new kind of portrait, of a very unusual sitter: the total solar eclipse. With unexpected accuracy, he captured those rare seconds when the moon disappears into darkness, crowned by the flames of the sun. Transient Effects: The Solar Eclipses and Celestial Landscapes of Howard Russell Butler, on view at the Princeton University Art Museum July 22–Oct. 15, 2017, shares the history of Butler’s unique paintings and the story of the artist who created them.

“Over centuries, bringing the tools of art to the aid of the sciences has allowed all of us to better understand the world we live in,” said James Steward, Nancy A. Nasher–David J. Haemisegger, Class of 1976, Director of the Princeton University Art Museum. “Howard Russell Butler’s surprising and meticulous renderings of celestial phenomena established a precedent in this emerging field of visual culture, providing astronomers with important data that photography at the time could not.”

Butler graduated from Princeton University with a degree in science in 1876, but shortly thereafter he decided to pursue a career in art. His uncle, the artist William Stanley Haseltine, held the belief that “every artist is also a scientist,” and Butler gravitated toward capturing fixed images of ever-changing subject matter, including portraiture and marine and celestial views. As an heir to the Hudson River School and its emphasis on awe-inspiring vistas, and as a student of Frederic Edwin Church (1826–1900), Butler fused nineteenth-century romantic traditions with scientific inquiry, specifically astronomy.

When he undertook to paint a solar eclipse, Butler faced a seemingly impossible task: making an accurate and scientifically useful picture of a complex, transitory astronomical event that the unaided eye cannot fully perceive. Observation, intuition and artistic license played an important part in Butler’s tour-de-force paintings of solar eclipses, and the shorthand sketching technique he developed allowed him to produce highly detailed and precise paintings of the color and shape of the solar corona. In so doing, he joined the ranks of artists and other image-makers who have struggled to translate unseeable or fleeting natural phenomena into visual form for the purpose of scientific study and the dissemination of knowledge in the public sphere.

Among his other accomplishments, Butler founded the American Fine Arts Society (now home to the Arts Students League of New York), was president of Carnegie Hall for nine years and served as the architectural advisor for Andrew Carnegie’s New York mansion (now home to Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum). He persuaded Carnegie to fund the creation of Carnegie Lake at Princeton University and supervised the lake’s construction.

Transient Effects presents several of Butler’s solar eclipses, as well as views of Earth and Mars from their respective moons and of the Northern Lights. Butler’s astute paintings of moonscapes and views of Earth from outer space, which appeared well before astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin actually landed on the moon in 1969, are remarkable records of uncanny insight and artistic power. In addition, the focused exhibition incorporates a handful of works by artists who were also interested in exploring the representation of science through artistic means, including Berenice Abbott, Harold Edgerton and Eadweard Muybridge.

The exhibition is curated by Lisa Arcomano, manager of campus collections at the Princeton University Art Museum, and Rolf Sinclair, adjunct researcher at the Centro de Estudios Científicos, Valdivia, Chile, and a visiting senior research scholar at the University of Maryland, College Park.

Several related programs have been organized to complement the exhibition, including a picnic on the Museum lawn on Aug. 3, a scholarly panel of experts from the sciences and the arts on Sept. 28 and a family day on Oct. 7.

In addition to the installation in the Museum’s galleries, an extensive online component has been developed to extend the exhibition:

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