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THE SKY AS METAPHOR IN AN AGE OF SCIENCE

GARY WELLS

Ithaca College

ABSTRACT. Artists and astronomers have depicted the sky not only based on representational

accuracy, but also for implied meaning. The artistic innovations of the nineteenth century coincided with the apex of observational astronomy. But the century also brought into question the relationship of nature and meaning, of observation and interpretation. This paper examines images by both artists and astronomers in the nineteenth century in an effort to explore the problem of observation and interpretation, and the intersection of artistic and scientific values in an age of changing perceptions of nature and truth.

The nineteenth century was, to the historian of astronomy, the era in which visual observation was first supplemented, then replaced, by photography. To the historian of art, the nineteenth century was the era in which the recording of visual observation also reached its apex, and in a situation parallel to that of astronomy, art turned away from the direct observation of nature to other issues for which images could be the instruments of inquiry. This parallelism was not coincidental, for the nineteenth century still saw a connection between the scientific and the artistic. My paper is prompted by a consideration of this parallelism, in particular by the way in which artists and scientists depicted the sky not only for what it looked like, but also for what it meant. Consider John Russell’s 1795 pastel The Face of the Moon. Poised at the threshold of the nineteenth century, Russell’s pastel was a descriptive, rather than interpretive, work. Russell’s image is similar to the work of countless astronomers who tried to carefully render by hand what they saw at the telescope eyepiece. But Russell was not a scientist, at least not in the professional sense of the word. He was as much artist as astronomer, and he found a convergence in the methods of the one to reinforce those of the other. It is not an image that prompts us to initially ask about meaning, because Russell gave us no other reference than the thing itself. And yet, the moon is the object of much symbolic meaning,

meaning created by the context in which we see it. Does Russell the astronomer set aside the notions that guided Russell the artist, and clearly separate issues of meaning from those of observation? Compared to Russell’s pastel, John Whipple’s daguerreotype The Moon from 1851 suggests that photography extended this desire to record nature primarily for representational accuracy. We would not expect to ask of the Whipple photograph, “what does it mean?” But we might look differently at a work of art like Claude Monet’s Impression: Sunrise, of 1872, and not only because we see the sun rather than the moon. The distinction between these two products of nineteenth century visual culture has to do with the way in which we, the audience, seek to understand the motives of the image makers. Because we can conceive of Monet’s painting as a symbolic construction, perhaps as a metaphor of French reconstruction after the Franco-Prussian War, as Paul Hayes Tucker has suggested (Tucker, 1984), we are able to discern both the representation of the rising sun and the significance of the sun as symbol, coexisting in the same image. Whipple’s photo suggests that the facts of visual representation are in themselves sufficient, and do not invite further consideration of symbolic or metaphorical content. And what of a painting like Jean-François Millet’s Starry Night, of 1850-51, done at exactly the same time as Whipple’s photograph? Millet’s painting helps define a new notion of art that seized the artistic imagination of mid-century Europe, where the act of observation itself was significant. Millet avoids narrative and overt symbols, the traditional vehicles of artistic meaning. And while Millet demonstrated in other works an interest in the function of the sky as calendar and timepiece, those ideas seem rather distant in this work, primarily because the foreground landscape is essentially devoid of references. This is a new kind of landscape, one that is particularly modern in outlook and dependant upon the methods of scientific observation to the exclusion of imaginative selection and manipulation. In a century that witnessed an unprecedented rise of scientific discovery and which embraced science as the solution to a host of social, practical, and even political problems, there still existed a curious ambivalence about the meaning of what was seen. To an art historian, or a historian of visual culture, this ambivalence opens up a host of

possibilities for tracing not only the role of images in shaping nineteenth century culture, but also for examining the mutual influence of art and science. My main image for this paper is an illustration, Night Sky over Paris, by the astronomer Amedée Guillemin, from his 1865 book Le Ciel. The illustration had two obvious purposes. First, it represented the configuration of prominent stars and constellations in the winter night sky. Second, it illustrated the appearance of the heavens and the Milky Way as seen in the dark skies over a pre-electric nineteenth century Paris. But, there is one particular aspect of Guillemin’s illustration that struck me when I first saw it. Guillemin depicts the Milky Way making contact with the horizon at precisely the point where a prominent domed building arises on the southern skyline of the city. This establishes a powerful visual focal point, but it also creates a striking symbolic focal point as well, for the building touched by the stars is none other than the Panthéon, the former church of Ste. Genevieve, the resting place of some of the greatest figures of French culture. The choice was obviously a deliberate one. Guillemin stressed the height of the dome, exaggerating its vertical reach somewhat to make his visual point clearer. Other architectural elements on the horizon lack celestial counterparts, thus singling out the Panthéon. He selected a vantage point that specifically arranges this earth/sky encounter, a viewpoint that is, in fact, imaginary: there is no specific location on which an observer could stand in order to see this exact view. We need not be reminded of the extensive and enduring symbolism of the Milky Way, through associations that linked the Milky Way with a celestial river, a pathway, or a starry road. This ribbon of stars was also seen at different times and in different cultures as a link between earth and heaven, a passageway for the souls of the deceased. These myths and associations were, and are, so common and so well known that it does not take much to believe that the astronomer Guillemin would have been familiar with them. It is clear, then, that Guillemin’s illustration had a third purpose, one that is more art than science, more interpretive than descriptive. His is a metaphorical image of the sky. And while these metaphors of connection and heavenly ascent are based upon relatively common knowledge, Guillemin’s interpretation also had distinctly nationalistic overtones. He selects

the one monument in mid-nineteenth century Paris that would have been most clearly and recognizably connected with the greatest deceased figures of French history and culture, and he uses the image of the Milky Way in its traditional role as a symbol of the death and ascension of the souls of those heroes. It seems that we are meant to see this sky as a metaphorical construction, a scientific image that doubles as something other than science. The metaphorical aspect of Guillemin’s illustration raises many interesting issues. I am drawn to the use of metaphor in the context of science, for aspects of symbolic meaning are at the heart of interpreting works of art but rarely are a factor in the contemplation of scientific illustrations. Although his book Le Ciel was intended to educate and inform, to present the case for a scientific view of the sky for a popular audience, Guillemin must also have realized that the same audience would be equally aware of the meaning he assigns to his illustration. Put another way, the scientist Guillemin sought to answer the question “what is it?” with his carefully labeled diagram of the sky, but he also seems to want us to ask “what does it mean?,” a question more often addressed by artists than scientists. Guillemin’s image suggests that he saw no conflict between these two questions. Situated at an important moment of transition in modern visual culture, the image illuminates a social and cultural context in which scientific illustration and art could coexist within similar boundaries. Even as art and science in the nineteenth century alternated between affinity and conflict, there was a clear tendency toward a scientific, that is to say, objective and naturalistic, stance among artists that culminated around the middle of the century with the artistic movement called Realism. The Realists professed a desire to see art become more “scientific,” placing an emphasis on observation over invention, and direct recording of nature over narrative. This new emphasis on objectivity was considered an antidote to Romantic emotion and subjectivity. The culmination of this trend, by century’s end, would be the realization that direct visual observation was limited by the ability of the eye to apprehend all that was necessary for a complete understanding of nature – a realization manifested by deep photography for the astronomer, and by movements like Symbolism for the artist. Astronomy had long shared common ground with the visual arts in the need for careful

observation, and the recording of those observations had meant that astronomers necessarily adopted some of the practices of the visual arts. It seems inevitable, then, that the process of visual recording would be touched by both aesthetic and iconographical considerations as part of this shared visual language. The embellishment of illustrations gave both credibility and context to observation, and added aesthetic value as well. Guillemin’s image of the sky might be seen as a more modern approach to rendering the sky in the way he strips away some of the traditions of conventional star charts. For instance, he relegates the names of constellations to the margins rather than drawing them as allegorical figures in the sky itself, a traditional practice that remained even at the end of the century, as seen on the “Celestial Globe,” constructed for the 1900 Paris Universal Exposition. He uses the representational conventions of landscape painting to provide a plausible context for his chart and to suggest a more realistic view of the sky that the reader could understand by imitating the direct observation of the astronomer. It is a device that can be seen today in the horizon views of celestial phenomena published in popular magazines of astronomy, and which had a parallel in “imaginary views” in astronomical publications of the nineteenth century. An example of the latter can be found in the 1882 book Astronomy, by J. A. Gillet and W. J. Rolfe, where an illustration of the earth as viewed from the moon bears a striking similarity in composition to Guillemin’s image, suggesting that the conventional schemes of representing the horizon-sky relationship were commonly understood (Gillet and Rolfe, 1882). This link in visual thinking is reinforced by the fact that the Gillet and Rolfe book borrows some of its illustrations from Guillemin’s earlier publication. Guillemin’s illustration essentially builds upon an artistic tradition as the means of expressing both observation and imagination. Despite the labels and the didactic context, the metaphorical overlay given to the image of the Milky Way gives this illustration another, distinctly unscientific character. Stated more generally, the nineteenth century, an era that prided itself on scientific advancement and knowledge, had not yet reconciled itself to the separation of symbolic values from the phenomena of nature. Even in an age of science, metaphor still held an important place in the visual language shared by scientists and artists alike.

Night Sky over Paris, from Amedée Guillemin’s Le Ciel (1865).

The Earth Seen form the Moon, from J. A. Gillet and W. J. Rolfe, Astronomy (1882).

Another example of this appropriation of metaphor in the service of astronomy can be found in the work of an astronomer contemporary with Guillemin. Etienne Trouvelot was born in France, but immigrated to the United States where he worked for the Harvard College Observatory. Trouvelot’s Milky Way, made around 1874 or about a decade after Guillemin’s similar work, is an image of sky and earth in direct relation, even contact, with one another. The Milky Way’s path leads the eye not only to the horizon, but also to a small sailboat, which is virtually silhouetted against the glow of starlight. On the right side, a lighthouse is poised on the rocky shore. Boats, lighthouses, oceans, and seashores are the stuff of traditional landscape painting: all have acquired over the centuries many symbolic and metaphorical associations, most often dealing with time, duration, mortality, and longing. The temptation is to also look upon this astronomer’s factual record with some sense of the metaphorical and symbolic, an aspect of meaning that underpins the material and observational reality of the picture. If astronomers were using the conventions of art in their documentation of the sky during the nineteenth century, artists were seeking to combine their traditional expressive and metaphorical content with more objective representation. We might consider this the flip side of the scientific outlook of nineteenth century society. Some mid-nineteenth century Realist artists reflected a set of beliefs and assumptions about the night sky in their paintings, beliefs that were still essentially rural and peasant. Artists like Jules Breton were interested in the meaning of the sky’s appearance, but accuracy and faithfulness to nature were prerequisites to the “truth” of both the images and the ideas for which these images stood, as in his 1878 painting The Festival of St. John. Breton wanted to record the actual appearance of the sky to support his aim of connecting the sky to the earthly activities of the peasants who occupy the foreground of his compositions. Breton’s primary intention was to give meaning to the sky by contextualizing the scene, “framing” it, as it were, so the

viewer could understand the sky as symbol and sign. Breton’s art, then, was based on the foundation of observation, but was enriched by the desire to represent some element beyond the observed. Breton’s paintings of the mid to late nineteenth century tell us that his audience demanded an art that was more than a record of an event or a picture of a place. Viewers expected a narrative, a moral, or an idea that gave the painting a “higher” purpose, that is to say, they expected more from art than mere documentation. For painters like Breton, the close observation of the sky was a way of validating their message. While these artists were still guided by traditional artistic conventions, they tried to redirect the issue of meaning away from overt symbolism and toward a more subtle metaphorical construction. A similar situation can be seen in William Dyce’s 1860 painting, Pegwell Bay. Dyce focuses our attention upon the seashore, with its beachcombing figures. It is only after another look that the faint image of the Great Comet of 1858, called Donati’s Comet, becomes apparent. The subtitle of this painting, “A Recollection of October 5, 1858,” reinforces two ideas. First, Dyce wants the audience to understand the “reality” of the image, validated by the exact date and location of the scene in the title. Second, the artist stresses that this image is more than a mere recording of fact, he calls it a “recollection” as if to suggest that the scene has another purpose. Visually, the relationship between the foreground and the sky present the viewer with a number of possibilities for interpretation:

the mundane world is contrasted with the celestial, and the human experience continues even in the face of extraordinary events. To Dyce, the comet was a natural event, not a symbolic portent as peoples in earlier times might have seen it. Dyce’s context is a more rational, scientific one. Astronomers presented the public with descriptive information about the comet through the popular press, and labored to deflect superstition. What interests me about this painting is that the artist is careful to visually describe the event in an objective manner, but he searches for a way to provide a metaphorical context within which this description can take place. The necessity for providing the viewer with a scene that is not only factually accurate, but also meaningful, is symptomatic of the nineteenth century’s ambivalent attitude toward the division of art and science.

William Dyce, Pegwell Bay, 1860

In a conference devoted to the inspiration of astronomical phenomena, it is important to understand that inspiration is often a two-way street. In the case of art and astronomy in the nineteenth century, it is clear that both artists and astronomers shared a common visual language, even as they used that language for different purposes. Science, astronomical or otherwise, strives to identify aspects of nature with increasing degrees of certitude. Art, in its various visual, textual, or performance manifestations, relishes a different relationship to nature, one more comfortable with multiplicity and ambiguity. When the astronomer employs metaphor, it not because of a failure of science, but because of a desire to communicate values and meaning beyond the observational record. The astronomer is, after, a product of the same cultural values that shape the artist. The way that both nineteenth century art and science represented the sky tells us that artist and scientist sometimes found themselves asking the same question when looking at the same phenomena. Even today, considerable effort is expended by astronomers to create images that are aesthetically pleasing as well as scientifically valid. And I suspect that among the multitude of astronomical images we have access to today, whether products of sophisticated spacecraft or the modest records of individual backyard observers, we can still find astronomers making metaphors of the sky.

References

Gillet, J. A. and W. J. Rolfe: 1882. Astronomy, New York. Guillemin, Amedée: 1865. Le Ciel, Paris. Tucker, Paul Hayes: 1984. “The First Impressionist Exhibition and Monet’s Impression, Sunrise: A Tale of Timing, Commerce, and Patriotism.” Art History, vol. 7, no. 4 (December).