Guest blog: A Cosmic Palette, Part 2, by Benjamin Palmer

Posted by David Eicher
on Thursday, September 15, 2011

You’ve heard before from 16-year-old Benjamin Palmer of Queensbury, New York, an enthusiastic astronomy buff who won Astronomy magazine’s Youth Essay Contest this year and also serves as chair of the Youth Committee for the Astronomy Foundation. Benjamin has written an essay on astronomy and art, and I think you’ll enjoy reading it immensely. What follows is part two; the first part appeared in my blog yesterday. Enjoy!

The Starry Night by Vincent van Gogh
A Cosmic Palette:
Astronomy’s Unique Impact on Post-Impressionism
Part Two


Capturing the essence of evening atmosphere poses an artistic challenge. An artist who truly understood its astronomical grandeur was American impressionist George William Sotter (1879–1953). Born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Sotter gained a solid reputation for his works, primarily his magnificent paintings of Bucks County, Pennsylvania.  His pieces carry an understated yet striking design, with a strong realism bent. Although a landscape artist by nature, it is Sotter’s elegant treatment of heavenly bodies that catches the eye.

A noteworthy example is Moonlight, Bucks County. This imposing composition conveys the elusive demeanor of the cosmos. Painted from the vantage point of a snow-covered field, the focus is toward the distant horizon, where slight, rolling hills meet the haunting backdrop of the wintertime sky.

Sotter paints in the manner of a seasoned observer. His vigilance to quiet detail is mesmerizing. Starlight cast upon the wintry scene evokes a sense of visceral desolation. However, it is Sotter’s impeccable portrayal of the constellations that heightens our senses.

Sotter exercises precision in his placement of the stars, maintaining the arrangement of their parent constellations rather than distributing them randomly. He appears to have transposed an October sky onto the wintry landscape, as the stars indicate an easterly perspective. Familiar stellar patterns seem to be represented. In particular, a resemblance to the Great Square of Pegasus, consisting of the stars Algenib, Markak, Scheat, and Alpheratz, is evident in the right-hand corner.

Silent Night, Bucks County is another arresting Sotter piece. The artist’s focus rests upon a stone farmhouse, veiled by a spur of barren trees. As in Moonlight, Bucks County, Sotter places considerable emphasis on the stars.

The majestic constellation Orion takes center stage in this work. Using a planisphere, I have determined Silent Night, Bucks County was painted in mid-January. The stars depicted would have been in alignment between 2 and 3 a.m., in a west-southwest direction. On the right side of the building, the belt stars Alnitak, Alnilam, and Mintaka glisten brightly in the evening sky. The supergiant variables Rigel and Saiph form a roughly linear pattern with the solitary portico of the farmhouse, while Betelgeuse and Bellatrix shimmer in the upper right-hand corner. Off to the left, the constellation Canis Major is also visible, with Sirius astride the edge of the main structure.

Sotter’s impressive portfolio of astronomical renditions has garnered widespread attention among serious art collectors. The demand for his pieces has seen a strong resurgence in recent years.

Vincent van Gogh (1853–1890), arguably the most renowned among modern post-impressionists, transcends the boundaries of time through his art. Best known for his abstract interpretations in The Starry Night and numerous self-portraits, van Gogh was capable of displaying astronomical aspects in other works as well. Starry Night Over the Rhone is a prime example.

Painted on location, Starry Night Over the Rhone is an intriguing masterpiece. Using a multitude of vibrant hues, van Gogh captures the quintessence of the nighttime ambiance surrounding Arles, France. He skillfully merges cosmic reflections with the luminosity of gas streetlamps in the water below, creating a pleasing overall effect.

The work’s most notable element draws viewers to the central region of the sky. Here van Gogh has chosen to highlight Ursa Major and, in particular, the Big Dipper asterism. Interestingly, Ursa Major could not have been remotely near the artist’s described position in Arles, his focal point toward the southwest during a time when Ursa Major was located precisely north.

Van Gogh elaborates on this inclusion in a correspondence to his brother Theo: “On the aquamarine field of the sky the Great Bear is a sparkling green and pink, whose discreet paleness contrasts with the brutal gold of the gas.”

Van Gogh’s affinity for celestial objects is obvious. The heavens engendered an almost hypnotic effect on his artistic sensibilities. Reflecting on the universe, he once mused: “For my own part, I declare I know nothing whatever about it, but looking at the stars always makes me dream, as simply as I dream over the black dots representing villages and towns on a map. Why, I ask myself, shouldn't the shining dots of the sky be as accessible as the black dots on the map of France?”

The aesthetic aspects of astronomy will always inspire the artist. Like astronomy, art illuminates the human condition while challenging our perspectives, both literal and figurative.  Post-impressionists uniquely interpreted the cosmic palette alongside their astronomical contemporaries. In doing so, they rightfully earned a stellar footnote in history.

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