A Very Different Method of Experiencing a Total Solar Eclipse

How will you view the upcoming Total Solar Eclipse? Visually? Telescopically? Photographically or Electronically assisted? Read below to consider a method of experiencing totality in a very uncommon but potentially rewarding way far beyond these typical methods. You will challenge yourself to try this method, but if you succeed, you will have both memories and a lasting treasure that will be hard to top.

Members of the Amateur Astronomers Association must surely be aware by now that next week, on April 8th, we will experience the second of the two recent solar eclipses visible in the United States. The first occurred last October, the ‘Ring of Fire’ annular solar eclipse, whose path cut across a long swath of North America. If we are graced with clear weather, we will next experience a great Total Solar Eclipse.  For this eclipse, a number of AAA members have indicated that they will try their hand at solar eclipse astrophotography, which can be a little tricky. If you are one such member, don’t forget to take in the breathtaking beauty of our star’s corona visually – whether naked eye, with binoculars or with a telescope. (Of course, be sure to reinstall your safe solar filters before the end of totality if you use optics!) Remember, there will be thousands of others taking images of the same event, but you only have your own eyes to see the solar corona so don’t miss out while fiddling with your equipment. Your mental image and experience will be priceless.

Interestingly, this same mental image, when captured by painters in the past, proved to be superior in many ways to early photographic attempts to record total solar eclipses. That’s right … paintings of eclipses were of scientific as well as aesthetic value, and it was common for eclipse expeditions to bring along artists to record, as faithfully as possible, the details of the event1. Three early and well-known artists happened to be New Yorkers – one from Ithaca and two from here in New York City, both working with the American Museum of Natural History’s Hayden Planetarium and by association, the Amateur Astronomers Association, too!

Howard Russell Butler (1856 – 1934)

New York City born H. R. Butler was a multi-talented man, educated in Physics at Princeton and law at Columbia. He worked in patent law until 1884 but decided to pursue his passion for painting. “…under Frederic Edwin Church, who was wintering in Mexico for his health, in January 1884 before returning to study with J. Carroll Beckwith and George de Forest Brush at the Art Students League in New York. In 1885, he went to France for two years and lived in Paris, a member of the artistic American colony in Paris, and Concarneau.”2

[Fig 1] “Eclipse”, 1918, Baker City OR, Howard Russell Butler
Credit: Image Public Domain

Butler then met Andrew Carnegie, who hired him as President of Carnegie Hall for ten years, but Carnegie also allowed Butler time to paint each day. “In 1918, Butler’s association with Carnegie led to him being invited to witness and record the 1918 Solar eclipse that was observed from Baker City in Oregon. The expedition was organized by the U.S. Naval Observatory and included Samuel Alfred Mitchell as its expert on eclipses. Butler noted later that he used a system of taking notes of the colors using skills he had learned for transient effects … His revived interest in physics led to his 1923 book Painter and Space which coincided with his second visit to a solar eclipse. He also created pictures of planets that were as seen from one of their moons. His last known eclipse visit was in 1932. … Butler is known particularly for paintings of seascapes and for his views of the eclipse of the sun, but he also … designed an Astronomy Hall for the American Museum of Natural History. Butler’s paintings of solar eclipses were on display for many years at the Hayden Planetarium at that museum.”3

Butler’s eclipse art kicked off a new career for him, consulting for AMNH, where he made several works of art with astronomical themes for educational programs. In 1930, AMNH installed a triptych of eclipse paintings which was reproduced at least three times for other institutions.4 The grouping shows the eclipses of 1918, 1923 and 1925.

[Fig. 2] Eclipse Triptych paintings, (L-R) 1918, 1923, 1925 by Howard Russell Butler, mounted posthumously over the entrance to Hayden Planetarium, built in 1935. (Images used with Fair-Use consent of Princeton University Art Museum, © 2024 The Trustees of Princeton University)

Butler achieved real acclaim for his astronomical artwork and especially for his eclipse renderings. “At a time when photography could not yet capture the nuances of the eclipsed sun, Butler’s paintings were a tour de force, providing astronomers and the public with perhaps the best record of eclipses at the time. Because of their remarkable accuracy in capturing the eclipse of the sun, Butler’s eclipse paintings have long been a source of fascination and study for scientists.”5

Daniel Owen Stephens (1893-1937)

Upon H. R. Butler’s death in 1934, AMNH was in need for a new artist to take over eclipse rendering. Enter D. Owen Stephens, a painter specializing in astronomical subjects. At that time, AAA’s first President was Dr. George Clyde Fisher, presiding from May 1927–June 1936. More importantly, Fisher was also the Curator of Astronomy at the new Hayden Planetarium of AMNH. Possibly through Butler, Fisher was aware of Stephens’ earlier work painting eclipses in 1925 and 1932, and with Butler passing in 1934, Fisher was in immediate need of a painter for the important eclipse expedition of 1937, in the Andes of Peru. Clyde Fisher made the arrangement for Stephens to accompany the Hayden Planetarium-Grace Peruvian Eclipse Expedition. 

Stephens, a Quaker, started his college education at Swarthmore College, near Philadelphia. He planned to be a professional astronomer, but he never completed his degree requirements and changed his career to that of an architect, mathematician, writer and professional artist. As for his artistic talents, Owen, as he was known, received much of his training from his parents and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. He also worked at, and was associated with Rose Valley, an artists’ colony in southeastern Pa. “Stephens became interested in the possibility of translating scientific knowledge into art forms. In painting, Stephens’ focus turned from landscapes to the night sky and astronomical scenes; he first painted a solar eclipse in 1925, and another in 1932. [As noted earlier,] at that time, a painter could make a more accurate image of an eclipse than a camera, as the colors had not yet been successfully caught on film and the photograph had to be overexposed to show the outer corona, thereby losing the details of the inner corona.”6

“The Hayden contingent commenced their voyage from New York to Peru on May 14. As their ship slipped south, the ever-observant Stephens delighted in witnessing the overhead celestial theatre reveal wonders he had never seen. He wrote: We are going south nearly 300 miles 

every day, and that makes all the stars at night look different. The Pole Star is getting lower and lower, and stars that we can never see in Rose Valley come up over the horizon. Monday night we were sailing straight toward Alpha and Beta Centaur [sic]… Sirius and another almost as bright…guessed Canopus and confirmed in atlas – what a sun! A shade less white than Sirius toward yellow, or if Sirius is bluish, Canopus is white.”7

The eclipse site where Stephens was stationed was at Cerro de Pasco, 14,200 feet elevation, from which it was surmised that they would be above the clouds at time of totality. The expedition took its time to acclimate to the altitude, ascending in stages, but almost everyone in the crew had bouts of altitude sickness … dizziness, headaches, pounding hearts. Stephens worked for days preparing his canvases and artists’ tools, and the high altitude crew had a successful eclipse expedition. Stephens stayed for almost a week on Cerro de Pasco, completing his paintings. 

[Fig. 3] ”Total Eclipse,” D. Owen Stephens, The Sky Magazine, Amateur Astronomers Association, Inc.

[Fig. 4] “Diamond Ring”, D. Owen Stephens, Image 1246192496. American Museum of Natural History Library

“Upon Stephens’ return to Lima on June 15, the staff observed he appeared to be in good spirits. Expedition leader Fisher was gratified all Hayden stations had experienced clear skies and reported excellent results. The group embarked upon their passage home in a celebratory mood, presumably anxious to regale their contemporaries with stories of adversity and accomplishment. But this was a voyage over which great gloom was about to descend. Several days out, after becoming ill and falling into a coma, D. Owen Stephens was brought ashore and transferred to a hospital in Balboa, Panama Canal Zone, where he passed away on June 23, 1937, officially of a thrombotic stroke.”8 Stephens was 43, and in seemingly good health. It’s impossible to know if his death was caused by his extended time above 14,000 feet, without supplemental oxygen, but there is a growing body of evidence suggesting that it might have. In the conclusion of a 2022 paper, we find “…residing above 3500 m seems to be associated with an apparent increased risk of developing stroke …”9

[Fig. 5] 1925 Eclipse, Louis Fuertes, painted in Ithaca NY. (Source unknown)

Louis Agassiz Fuertes (1874 – 1927)

The third of our astronomical artist trilogy was ornithologist, naturalist, illustrator and painter Louis Fuertes.  Fuertes was born in Ithaca, New York, and was the son of Puerto Rican astronomer and civil engineer Estevan Fuertes. His father was the founding professor of the School of Civil Engineering at Cornell University and the campus astronomical observatory, Fuertes Observatory, is named in Estevan Fuertes’ honor. Louis was a superb illustrator of birds, perhaps second only to his mentor, John James Audubon. His bird illustrations gave him an entrée into AMNH at a very young age, even before he went to Cornell for his degree. Unlike Butler and Stephens, Louis didn’t share much of his father’s interest in astronomy. However, he gained worldwide recognition for his ornithological knowledge and skill as a bird illustrator. He did, however, turn his artistic skill towards the sun when the 1925 Total Solar Eclipse passed directly over his hometown of Ithaca. This easy opportunity was one he could not pass up. Setting up at the observatory, he worked alongside Professor W. C. Baker and an art student, Miss Dvorak. The three prepared colored sketches and then worked from photographs to ensure that they had the correct size and shape of the corona.10 Fig. 5 shows the only known astronomical rendering Louis Fuertes completed. Whether he might have chased more eclipses and completed more paintings later in life, we’ll never know. Tragically, Fuertes was killed only two years later, in 1927 when his car collided with a train near Unadilla, New York. It was nighttime and the crossing was concealed by a large load of hay. 

April 8th, 2024 … what will you do?

Quite a lot of AAA members have stated that they plan to travel to the line of totality for this great eclipse opportunity. And it is certain that more than a few will try their hand at photographing the eclipse. Perhaps this recounting of the artistic exploits of New Yorkers that came before us may inspire some to try their hand at rendering what they saw. It can be as simple as a pencil sketch or as involved as an oil on canvas. Good luck and clear skies!

Bart is the current Executive Vice President of the Amateur Astronomers Association, Inc., and the founder and current President of the Antique Telescope Society. He is a member of the American Astronomical Society’s Historical Astronomy Division and a member of the British Astronomical Association. He enjoys visual astronomy with his antique telescopes and loves to share the views, especially with kids.

  1.  In the early days of astrophotography, it was not possible to correctly expose the plates for both the inner and outer coronas due to the great difference in brightness. Detail in one or the other would be lost. And even after the advent of color photography, early attempts to record colors during eclipses were unsuccessful as well.
  2.  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Howard_Russell_Butler ↩︎
  3. ibid
  4. https://artmuseum.princeton.edu/transient-effects/painter-sun/eclipse-paintings-howard-russell-butler/butlers-eclipse-paintings/eclipse-paintings-1918-1923-1925-displayed-as-triptych
  5. https://artmuseum.princeton.edu/transient-effects/painter-sun/eclipse-paintings-howard-russell-butler
  6. https://data.library.amnh.org/archives-authorities/id/amnhp_1001992 ↩︎
  7.  Kerr, Robert, The Artist and the Eclipse, Vol. 74, No. 2, MARCH 2022. pp 18-21 ↩︎
  8.  Ibid, pp20-21 ↩︎
  9.  BMJ Open. 2022; 12(4): e051777. Published online 2022 Apr 28. doi: 10.1136/bmjopen-2021-051777
  10.  The eclipse of January 24, 1925, at the Fuertes Observatory, Pendleton, C. M. & Boothroyd, S. L., Popular Astronomy, Vol. 33, p.225 ↩︎