A small but compelling new exhibit at the Princeton University Art Museum, “Transient Effects: The Solar Eclipses and Celestial Landscapes of Howard Russell Butler,” will coincide with the much-anticipated total solar eclipse on Monday, August 21 – the first of this century to be easily viewed in the contiguous United States.
To celebrate this historic event, the PUAM has organized “Transient Effects” to mark Butler’s artistic achievements in capturing eclipses and other astronomical subjects, but also to enlighten viewers about Butler’s many significant connections to Princeton. To begin with, he graduated in 1876 from Princeton University’s first school of science and settled permanently in town in 1911.
A friend and portraitist for Andrew Carnegie, he persuaded the famed industrialist to fund the creation of Carnegie Lake and supervised the lake’s construction. Butler also participated in the development of Palmer Square, the planning of the Princeton Battle Monument, and was enthusiastically involved in matters of the historic Morven house and the public library.
Lisa Arcomano, the PUAM’s manager of campus collections and co-curator of the exhibit, says there is quite a buzz being generated about Butler (1856-1934), a kind of “Butlermania,” she says.
“This was a revelation to me,” she says. “It’s funny, the more we learned, the more we got drawn into it. You almost catch a bug when you learn that Butler did this and did that. He just had a lovely mind — he was a real renaissance man.”
On view through Sunday, October 8, “Transient Effects” showcases Butler’s oil paintings of solar eclipses, as well as imaginative views of Earth and Mars from their respective moons and a stunning image of the Northern Lights near his home in coastal Maine. The painting of Earth from the moon is especially prescient, appearing long before astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin actually landed on the moon in 1969.
The show also features works by other artists who were interested in exploring the representation of science through artistic means. Photographs by Berenice Abbott, Eadweard Muybridge, and Harold Edgerton are displayed, as well as recent PUAM acquisitions by Wilson Bentley and Josef Maria Elder.
Several public events are planned to complement the show. For families, there will be a day of art-making and activities focused around the exhibit. “Family Day: Celestial Art,” will be held Saturday, October 7, at the museum.
On Thursday, September 28, in McCormick Hall, the panel discussion “Capturing Transient Effects” will bring together a handful of art historians and scientists to explore how art can capture fleeting natural events and defy the limits of vision. A reception at the museum will follow.
The late afternoon conversation will welcome “Transient Effects” co-curator Rolf Sinclair, who is an adjunct researcher at the Centros de Estudios Cientificos in Valdivia, Chile and a senior research scholar at the University of Maryland.
The panel also includes Rachael DeLue from Princeton University’s Department of Art & Archaeology, Joshua Winn, professor of astrophysical sciences at Princeton, as well as Richard Woo, senior research scientist emeritus at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology.
Woo produced the compelling video, “Art Captures Perception That Explains the Corona,” for the extensive website that goes with “Transient Effects.”
The site — artmuseum.princeton.edu/transient-effects — is a deep dive into Butler, and it also offers “chapters” on historic eclipse expeditions, new discoveries in eclipses, studies of the sun, and a rich collection of how eclipses have been portrayed in art throughout the ages.
Website visitors can see images of eclipses not only in historic and modern Western art, but also in Asian art, with especially eerie depictions in religious contexts. On the lighter side, a lithograph by Honore Daumier uses the eclipse of 1847 to mock the legal profession.
There’s even a link to the 2015 video “Blackstar” from the late David Bowie’s final album. Known for his cutting edge stagecraft and imagery, Bowie worked with director Johan Renck on the short film, which employs a total solar eclipse in the ominous opening sequence.
“Generations didn’t know what the science was, and you can imagine when suddenly the sun was blocked out, it would be quite frightening,” Arcomano says. “For some it was part of their astrological calendar, but there’s always been a sense of foreboding to an eclipse.”
“The website came first, which is unusual,” she says. “Rolf Sinclair and I have been talking about having an exhibit on Butler for seven or eight years, and we realized that this would be an amazing time to do it. I have to thank him for his passion and his research.”
Born in New York City, Butler gravitated toward capturing images of ever-changing subject matter, including portraiture, the sea and ocean, landscapes, and celestial views. Although he initially sought a career as a scientist, which included working as an illustrator in Thomas Edison’s lab in Menlo Park, he pursued a career as a painter instead.
After studying with famed landscape painter Frederic Edwin Church, a central figure in the Hudson River School, Butler drew on his knowledge of science to explore art differently.
According to the text that accompanies the exhibit, “Observation, intuition, and a little artistic license came together in Butler’s paintings of solar eclipses, and the shorthand sketching technique he developed allowed him to produce detailed and precise paintings of the color and shape of the solar corona.”
“He was practicing with a stop watch — sketching for ten seconds then stopping, sketching for another ten seconds then stopping — and when he stopped, he would note the color value and the brightness for example,” Arcomano says. “The methodology he developed was pretty amazing. He’d make notations and then afterward create these extraordinary paintings, based on his notes about color and saturation, etc. It’s remarkable how accurate his method was.”
Arcomano says that Butler learned this technique because he was the official portraitist for Carnegie — a famously restless sitter.
“Butler also employed it with his landscapes, sunsets, and whatnot. He really had this method down,” she says. “He had already become well-established in the New York art world. So in 1918 he was invited to come along on the eclipse expedition to Baker, Oregon,” which would be the first of several he would join as artist-in-residence.
She explains that, 100 years ago, eclipse expeditions were as renowned — and expensive — as NASA’s space shots, so it was quite notable for Butler to be the artist-in-residence.
“It was extraordinary that he was able to capture the eclipses, because, of course, they only take a few minutes,” Arcomano says. “But through his method, Butler was able to capture these events, and it startled everyone. Decades later, photography would catch up, but even now, many scientists have this sense of respect for him.”
Butler went on to accompany the 1923 expedition in Baja, California, but ended up painting the solar eclipse from his studio near Santa Barbara. Fortunately, he had the better view, as the skies in Baja, California, became cloudy. He also participated in the 1925 eclipse expedition in Connecticut/New York.
In 1932, however, he didn’t have to travel to paint a solar eclipse — it appeared practically in his own backyard. Butler had spent summers at several places on the Maine coast where he painted a number of seascapes. It so happened that the house he occupied in 1932 in York Harbor was close to the center line of the total solar eclipse of that year, so he was able to paint it.
Regarding his images of Mars as seen from its satellites, Butler depicted the Red Planet according to what was known and could be observed from Earth at that time. He consulted with Henry Norris Russell, then a professor of astronomy at Princeton, about what the surface of the satellites of Mars would look like.
The artist was also influenced by the sketches of Mars done by the famous Arizona astronomer Percival Lowell, who firmly believed that there was life on Mars.
To say the least, Lowell’s sketches exceeded what was actually visible of Mars through his telescope, with the astronomer drawing networks of interconnected canals that he surmised had been laid by Martians; Lowell even drew what he felt were areas of lush vegetation on the planet.
Butler captured these features on Mars’ surface, and on “Mars as Seen from Deimos,” the result is a kind of gray mesh across its peach-orange colored surface. On “Mars as seen from Phobos,” a larger, mysterious grey area resembles a bird in flight.
Butler “made the paintings of Mars as seen from Deimos and from Phobos accurate to the extent that if the observer is seven feet from either painting, he or she will see Mars in the painting at the same size that Mars would seem if the observer were standing on the Martian satellite and looking at the real Mars in the sky,” according to the exhibit text.
In addition to the accomplishments in celestial paintings, 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 was a man of his time, very concerned about and connected with civic life, politics, etc.,” Arcomano says.
Butler’s celestial paintings were thought to be lost, with just a glimmer of a memory as to their place within the Princeton University campus.
“When I first got here, about eight years ago, the Asian art curator came to me and said, ‘you have to find these (Butler) paintings,’” Arcomano says. “They had been taken down some 15 years before, and people were concerned that they had been lost, felt that maybe they were tucked away in a broom closet.”
“Sure enough, we found them in Fine Hall,” she says, referring to the home of the university’s math department. “These celestial and astronomical paintings had been in a corridor there, and also in the Princeton Observatory. The facilities manager found them in a closet and knew they were remarkable and that they were about to disappear. So I got them conserved and got them displayed.”
“Rolf Sinclair went to the storage (facilities) with me and looked at the paintings, and told me why they were important to him, that the artist had captured this ‘transient effect’ in a way that photography couldn’t capture at the time,” Arcomano says. “Hence, the title of our exhibit.”
Arcomano, a Robbinsville resident, grew up in Brooklyn, in a home where art was not really a priority, where more importance was placed on science. Her father taught medicine at Stony Brook University on Long Island, and her mother was a stay-at-home mom.
She studied Fine Arts at Cornell University from 1974 to 1976, then transferred to Barnard College, where she received a BA in art history in 1978. Arcomano then did her graduate work at the University of Chicago, where she earned an MA in art history in 1981.
Prior to working in Princeton, Arcomano was manager of collections and exhibitions at the Rubin Museum of Art (RMA), in New York. She held the position of associate director for the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum Research Center in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and was also exhibitions coordinator at the Bard Graduate Center: Decorative Arts, Design History, and Material Culture in New York.
Although Arcomano says she has always known she wanted to be involved in visual art, a love of science has been there, too. Some of her fondest childhood memories are of visits to the science museums and planetariums in and around New York City.
“When I first saw these paintings, it reminded me of my school trips to the Hayden Planetarium, that magical feeling of looking up,” Arcomano adds. “These paintings by Butler conjure these early childhood memories, that same sense of wonder.”
“Art has always been a big part of my life, and I’ve always imagined a career in art,” she says. “In my first year of college as a fine arts major I aspired to be an artist for an archaeologist. This never came to be, but my first job after graduating college, before graduate school, was at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, where I worked for a world renowned paleontologist as departmental secretary for ‘Micropaleontology Press.’”
“That’s why I love working here at Princeton,” she adds. “The work takes me out of the art museum, onto, and all around the campus. For example, the Butler paintings hung elsewhere on campus, but it’s all art, it all tells stories.”
Arcomano imagines that certain science-loving (and science fiction-loving) folks of different generations will come to see “Transient Effects” and catch a little Butlermania.
“I was thinking that science teachers and maybe the children of science teachers will come to the museum,” she says.
“But also maybe the generation that looked at amazing space illustrations, or people who watched the astronauts being launched into space, watched the moon landing — I hope that’s who comes to the show,” Arcomano says.
“Butler knew what he was doing, so his works were instructive, as well as inspirational,” she says. “They’re scientific but also quite beautiful. I’m really happy that Butler has this presence here and now, especially given his connection to Princeton.”
Transient Effects: The Solar Eclipses and Celestial Landscapes of Howard Russell Butler, Princeton University Art Museum, through Sunday, October 8. Free. 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday; 10 a.m. to 10 p.m., Thursdays. Closed Mondays.
Panel Discussion, 101 McCormick Hall, Thursday, September 28, 5:30 p.m. Reception at the museum to follow. Free.
Family Day: Celestial Art. Saturday, October 7, 10:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. Free. 609-258-3788 or artmuseum.princeton.edu/transient-effects.