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The Astronomical Drawings of E. L. Trouvelot

by Dani Johnson

July 14, 2013

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Donate I feel very fortunate to be alive during the twenty-first century for many reasons, especially because we have the technology to see our Solar System in ways that no other generation has been able to duplicate. Before telescopes (and other, similar technology), it was left up to the imagination to decide what the other planets looked like. The telescope was invented in the early 1600's and evolved into something that allowed us to see most of the other planets as if we were looking at them out of the observation deck on a space ship actually in orbit.

Technology has advanced to the point that if I want to take a very close look at any planet in the Solar System all I have to do is turn on my computer and type in a web address. Most of the images are incredibly high-resolution, and a lot of them are computer generated from data collected by a visiting probe or orbiter. There are even computer applications that allow me to navigate through the Solar System, or even the Universe, in a 3d generated world being displayed on a high-definition computer screen. Almost any curious person in the United States has immediate access to the internet at all times, so if one should wonder what Saturn's rings look like up close they no longer have to gaze into their own imagination for the answer. It wasn't always like that, though. Before the digital age, if someone wanted to show their friends (or the world) what our neighboring planets looked like, they had to learn how to draw and sit at a telescope for hours to make a realistic sketch or drawing.

My favorite artist is E. L. Trouvelot, a french artist and astronomer from the late 1800's. According to the New York Public Library, "Trouvelot created a detailed series of large pastel drawings of Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, the Moon of Earth, and a number of celestial phenomena, such as sunspots and the zodiacal light. His aim was to represent 'the celestial phenomena as they appear to the trained eye and to an experienced draughtsman through the great modern telescopes.'"

My favorite of Trouvelot's work is Jupiter.

Above Image: The planet Jupiter. Observed November 1, 1880, at 9h. 30m. P.M. (1881-1882)

Image Credit: E. L. Trouvelot/New York Public Library

This pastel drawing was completed in the late 1880's, but it looks like it would fit right in with the space propaganda posters from the beginning of the space race. You might've noticed that the great red spot seems to be in a different position in this drawing. I was puzzled at first, but it is typical of certain telescopes to display an image upside down or even backwards. I especially love the detail in the equatorial band, it looks like two giant tornado-snakes are competing for space in that zone. I wonder if those black dots are bruises in the cloud system left over from an impact, shadows from transiting satellites, or if they're just darker portions in the cloud system that Trouvelot translated as black dots. There are white dots that might correspond with some of the black dots, I suppose they could be the planet that is casting the shadow, but they could also be lighter portions of the atmosphere that were translated as white dots. Either way, the drawing is absolutely gorgeous.

Now, let's take a look at Jupiter as seen from Voyager 1:

Above Image: Jupiter Full Disk with Great Red Spot

Image Credit: NASA/JPL

My favorite feature on this lovely image is still the equatorial band. It only looks a little different from the drawing, I still think of little tornado-snakes chasing each other around in that zone. I also really like the zone right above the great red spot in this image, it has a lot of interesting cloud structures as well. I can't wait for JUNO to finally make it to Jupiter! I have confidence that it will allow us to discover new things about Jupiter in the same way that Cassini is allowing us to discover new things about Saturn.

Speaking of Saturn, Trouvelot also drew a lovely image of our beautiful ringed planet:

Above Image: The planet Saturn. Observed on November 30, 1874, at 5h. 30m. P.M. (1881-1882)

Image Credit: E. L. Trouvelot/New York Public Library

I am glad that Saturn's rings were actually at a good viewing angle when Trouvelot sat down to draw this one out. Sometimes the rings are angled so that we can only see a sliver cut through the equator of the planet here from Earth. I love the detail in this one, also. Trouvelot even included the shadow that Saturn is casting against it's rings!

Here is what this big beautiful planet looks like from our magnificent Hubble telescope:

Above Image: Saturn from the Hubble telescope

Image Credit: NASA, ESA and Erich Karkoschka (University of Arizona)

I especially love how pale Saturn looks agains the velvet-black of empty space.

The next drawing looks way more stylized to me, but I can definitely see the surface features of Mars in the bizzare patters:

Above Image: The planet Mars. Observed September 3, 1877, at 11h. 55m. P.M.

Image Credit: E. L. Trouvelot/New York Public Library

Apon first glance, this looks more like a drawing of a reflection bouncing off of a marble rather than a planet. The most obvious thing is the swirl in the middle of the planet. We are very fortunate that there wasn't a global dust storm occuring when Trouvelot decided to draw some of the planets, otherwise this beautiful drawing might have been simply an orange orb. Not very exciting.

Let's take a look at a real image of Mars:

Above Image: Mars before and during a global dust storm

Image Credit: NASA, James Bell (Cornell Univ.), Michael Wolff (Space Science Inst.), and the Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA)

If you're like me and you're having trouble seeing the resemblance at first, try looking at the Hubble photo upside down, it really helps.

You can find the rest of the famous Trouvelot drawings at the New York Public Library's website!

by Dani Johnson

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