We live in a golden age of astrophotography, with a feast of jaw-dropping images from the farthest reaches of space crossing our news feeds on a daily basis. But sometimes it’s good to revisit the imagery of our pre-photographic past—in this case, the work of 19th-century illustrator Étienne Léopold Trouvelot. The Frenchman, once dubbed the “prince of observers,” produced some 7000 astronomical illustrations over his lifetime, and we’re featuring some of the best of them here.
Trouvelot was born in Aisne, France, but his political leanings put him at odds with Napoleon Bonaparte. After Napoleon’s 1852 coup d’état, Trouvelot fled the country with his family in 1855 and landed in the Medford suburb of Boston, Massachusetts. Trained as an artist, nature illustrator, and printmaker, Trouvelot fell in love with astronomy after witnessing several auroras, and he began illustrating the amateur observations he spied through his small telescope.
Those illustrations were sufficiently striking to capture the attention of Joseph Whitlock, director of the Harvard College Observatory, who invited Trouvelot to join the staff in 1872. Now he had access to the college’s far-more powerful telescope, as well as the US Naval Observatory’s 26-inch reflecting telescope, and the wondrous objects he saw through them fueled his imagination even more. He strove for accuracy in his illustrations, of course, but also sought to capture “the natural elegance and the delicate outlines peculiar to the object depicted.”
“The camera could not replace the human eye…”
Trouvelot used an ingenious projection technique to produce preliminary sketches of what he saw through the telescopes, filling out the details after. With the advent of astronomical photography, Trouvelot stubbornly stuck with his tried and true methods, arguing that “the camera could not replace the human eye… A well-trained eye alone is capable of seizing the delicate details of structure and of configuration of the heavenly bodies, which are liable to be affected, and even rendered invisible, by the slightest changes in our atmosphere.”
He exhibited his work at the first World’s Fair in Philadelphia in 1876. The best of his pastel drawings were converted to chromolithographs under the artist’s watchful eye and published by Charles Scribner’s Sons in 1881 as The Trouvelot Astronomical Drawings Manual. Craters on both the Moon and Mars are named in his honor, and he also published a good number of scientific papers in his lifetime.
Alas, Trouvelot was less successful as an amateur entomologist. Shortly after coming to the US, he investigated whether certain breeds of caterpillars capable of producing more silk could thrive in his adopted country. One of the species he brought with him from France were gypsy moths. But when the eggs hatched, some of the larvae escaped into the nearby woods and quickly spread over the next few decades, killing large swathes of hardwood trees. Efforts to eradicate the invasive species proved fruitless: the gypsy moth remains a scourge to this day.
Listing image by Étienne Léopold Trouvelot/Public domain