Guest blog: A Cosmic Palette, Part 1, by Benjamin Palmer

Posted by David Eicher
on Wednesday, September 14, 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. The first part follows; part two will come tomorrow. Enjoy!

The Starry Night by Vincent van Gogh
A Cosmic Palette:

Astronomy’s Unique Impact on Post-Impressionism

“Astronomy compels the soul to look upwards and leads us from this world to another.” — Plato

Through the centuries, mankind has gazed skyward trying to decipher the intricate mysteries of our universe. Preceding Hubble and CCD technology, the artist was the trusted scientific observer, chronicling the ethereal grandeur of the cosmos. One novel source of inspiration derived from the post-impressionist period. With their nuanced, yet visually acute, astronomical renditions, these artists left their mark on the field of observational astronomy.

Post-impressionism is most often associated with the vibrant tones of French masterworks. This 19th-century movement produced a contemporary class of artistic interpretation resulting in dynamic new masterpieces. Post-impressionists were an exquisite breed of artists, their brushstrokes depicting everyday scenes in extraordinary fashion. Their delicate usage of en plein air composition, combined with a strong desire to capture light and accuracy, made post-impressionists keen observers. The heavens provided a natural source of inspiration.

Post-impressionism’s astronomical origins evolved from realism. Realists sought to illustrate objects in an intricate yet unbiased manner, and this quest for perfection was reflected in the artists themselves.

One noteworthy example is Abraham Pether (1756–1812), an English landscape artist especially adept at portraying moonlit scenes. Pether was a genuine Renaissance man with extensive talents in mathematics, philosophy, and music. Most impressively, he harbored a strong scientific bent, constructing telescopes in his spare time.

Pether’s astronomical observations strongly influenced his works, such as Moonlit River Landscape with a Town by a Bridge. In this captivating piece, attention is immediately drawn to the Full Moon, surrounded by cumulus clouds. Emitting a radiant glow, the lunar reflection on the water further illuminates the landscape, especially the trees and buildings in the foreground. Pether’s attention to scientific detail is meticulous as he adheres to astronomical authenticity in the halos surrounding the Moon. They intricately display the same pattern, hue, and texture surrounding a veritable Full Moon. Indeed, Pether’s stunning work is unquestionably a paragon for the merging of scientific and artistic values.

A salient, alluring figure, the Moon was always a central subject for post- impressionists. Earth’s natural satellite has elicited our visual attention for centuries, and myriad painters have gravitated to its poetic beauty.

One such individual was the talented American artist Granville Redmond (1879–1935).  Deaf at age 3, Redmond’s eyes became his most astute sensory tool. Specializing in the picturesque tones of California impressionism, his work captured the dramatic daylight vistas of the coastal region.

However, his nighttime works were equally enthralling. A fine paradigm is Nocturne. In this masterpiece, the Moon is depicted as an out-of-the-frame entity with a shaft of light reflected on the marsh below. The work’s unique perspective, focusing on photons rather the than Moon itself, gives the lunar subject a distinctly mystical yet realistic air. Redmond subtly conveys that element of mystery so omnipresent in astronomy.

Post-impressionists were by no means limited to the lunar landscape. Indeed, the stars and constellations themselves soon became the centerpiece of countless impressionist works. While individual interpretations varied widely, many artists achieved a high level of scientific accuracy in their paintings.

To be continued . . .

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