The Traveling Astronomer Returns:  The 1883 Transit of Venus in France

By Stanley Fertig

My wife and I were traveling in France this week and happened to visit the Palais des Beaux-Arts de Lille, a city in the north of France.  The museum houses a wonderful collection of paintings from the Middle Ages to the present, with a particular emphasis on artists from Flanders and northern France, including Pieter Bruegel, Hieronymus Bosch, Eugene Delacroix as well as works by Goya, Monet and many others.  The sculpture collection includes works by Rodin, Donatello and Roman statues.  It’s an impressive collection!

As we walked through the museum, lo and behold, I was surprised to come upon an extremely large vase, approximately six feet in height, set upon a pedestal.  The vase was made in commemoration of the transit of Venus of 1883.  The artists, whose names you can make out in one of the attached photos, are not exactly household names today, but certainly merit our admiration!

In 1882 and 1883 there were two transits of Venus across the disk of the sun.  Venus transits always occur in pairs and these transits were separated only by several months.  The transit was observed in North America as well as in Europe and was apparently a popular event comparable to our recent Venus transit in 2012.

One side of the vase shows Venus and Cupid in front of a telescope, with what appears to be the disk of the sun with a stripe across it marking the transit.  The other side of the vase shows the sun as a seated god-like figure, shining rays of light in all directions, with the goddess Venus sailing by in front of him, her hair flown back and one hand possibly shielding her eyes from his glare.

Incidentally, the Smithsonian museum commissioned a march by John Philip Sousa to commemorate the 1883 transit, entitled the Transit of Venus March.  Sousa’s original copy of the March was lost in a flood soon after, but fortunately was discovered in the archives of the Library of Congress in 2003 by astronomer Sten Odenwald and librarian Susan Claremont.  The march was re-orchestrated by Loras Schissel and finally premiered in 2003, 120 years after its composition.

Historical information source:  Institute for Astronomy, University of Hawaii.

By Stanley Fertig