This 19th century “eco-villain” created space art that was truly ahead of its time.


Astrophotography enables all of us to become citizens of the cosmos.

At a glance, we can be transported to the depths of space to contemplate Jupiter’s dazzling cloudy landscape. Moments later, we can imagine the changing rust-colored sands of Mars or our way through the lunar surface.

It’s a gift that’s easy to take for granted. After all, a century and a half ago it took the creative hand of a talented artist to preserve what only a privileged few could see; a hand that is not unlike that of Étienne Léopold Trouvelot.

Born in France in 1827, the lithographer printer fled to America with his wife Adèle following a coup d’état by the famous General Napoleon Bonaparte. There, a brief foray into entomology would have devastating consequences for his new homeland, causing Trouvelot to revert to old passions – art and astronomy.

In an era when photography was in its infancy and even the best telescopes were little more than finely crafted lenses, nothing could replace a generous dose of artistic license when it came to preserving what the eye saw.

“Only a well-trained eye is able to grasp the delicate details of the structure and configuration of celestial bodies, which are likely to be affected, and even made invisible, by the slightest changes in our atmosphere,” Trouvelot writes about. of his work. .

Today, his astronomical works of art can still elicit emotions of awe and wonder at the astonishing beauty of stars and clouds of gas that few are fortunate enough to see firsthand.

(Étienne Léopold Trouvelot / Public domain)

Or his intricate mapping of the texture of a Moon that many of us are familiar with, but rarely see up close.

(Étienne Léopold Trouvelot / Public domain)

Even the most common sight, that of a ghostly river of stars that represents a glimpse of our galaxy from within, turns into a bold and majestic scene.

(Étienne Léopold Trouvelot / Public domain)

Yet Trouvelot’s legacy is mixed, deserving both our respect as an astronomical visionary and our judgment as an ecological villain.

It is not without irony that a man known for his perspectives on celestial objects so far away could have made such a myopic mistake in his own garden.

The butterfly that stripped the east coast

Before the 1860s, Lymantria dispar dispar – also known as the European gypsy moth – was exclusively an Old World pest.

Today, it weaves its way through thousands of square miles of lush greenery in the northeastern United States each year, endangering up to 300 different species of trees and shrubs. In the past half-century alone, the gypsy moth has defoliated more than 83 million acres of forest in an area that now stretches from the Atlantic coast to central Wisconsin.

For such a huge ecological threat, the introduction of the moth to the United States seems absurdly trivial.

Perhaps to supplement his income by producing lithographic plates at his new home in Medford, Massachusetts, or perhaps out of personal interest, Trouvelot spent his free days raising silkworms.

What started out as a small hobby quickly grew into an industry-wide business. At the end of the Civil War in 1865, Trouvelot claimed to be feeding a million young silkworms on five acres of woodland in his backyard.

Noticing how easily his flock of larvae were swallowed up by birds, he began to consider ways of raising a more robust and faster larva. With so many oaks on his property, his attention turned to a European moth that fed on the tree’s foliage and produced young that would not be so attractive to predators.

GypsyMothGrub(Didier Descouens / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0)

It is not known exactly how the sample of Trouvelot’s gypsy moth larvae arrived in America. It doesn’t really matter either. Critically, around 1867, Trouvelot began experimenting with the insect inside his Medford home. And, by at least one account, outside of this one.

According to Trouvelot, it was a gust of wind that blew gypsy moth eggs into the wooded area near his house. According to an investigation by a state ornithologist tasked with putting out the glowing embers of a moth infestation, Trouvelot’s moths were already outside – under a net attached to an oak tree.

Whoever is right, the mistake would be costly, still causing hundreds of millions of dollars in damage every year in the United States today.

Trouvelot had already given up on his entomological experiments long before the appearance of the first moth invasions in Medford in the 1880s, no doubt appreciating the gravity of his error.

From silkworms to sunspots

Time travelers returning to Philadelphia in 1876 would do well to stop by the Centennial International Exhibition.

The first World’s Fair to be officially held in the country, it featured a variety of technological marvels, from Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone and the Wallace-Farmer electric dynamo to the copper-plated arm of what would become the Statue of Liberty. . There were new foods, like Heinz Ketchup and Hires Root Beer, and exhibits on current trends in forestry and agriculture.

And there was a sample of pastel artwork by lithographer and astronomer EL Trouvelot, depicting a handful of astronomical delicacies.

His method was as simple as it was effective, relying on a grid etched across his field of view to precisely coordinate the key features of his subject.

A few years earlier, Trouvelot’s talents had caught the attention of Harvard College Observatory Director Joseph Winlock. Winlock invited Trouvelot to join their team in 1872, where he made good use of their 66-centimeter (26-inch) telescope.

In total, Trouvelot produced around 7,000 illustrations from his observations.

Some are complex records reflecting a time when we were only just beginning to understand the characteristics of the planets in our own neighborhood.

(Étienne Léopold Trouvelot / Public domain)

(Étienne Léopold Trouvelot / Public domain)

Saturn drawn by Trouvelot(Étienne Léopold Trouvelot / Public domain)

Something as familiar as an eclipse takes on a strange new beauty seen through the eyes of another.

(Étienne Léopold Trouvelot / Public domain)

(Étienne Léopold Trouvelot / Public domain)

Others were discoveries attributed to full-fledged Trouvelot, such as those “veiled” sunspots he describes “appear as if seen through a fog, or veil, between the granulations of the solar surface.”

TrouvelotsSunSpotsArt(Étienne Léopold Trouvelot / Public domain)

A drawing of Leonid’s meteor shower drawn in 1868, long before his time at Harvard, features bent meteors and legged dogs at odd angles in the sky.

TrouvelotOrionMeteorsArt(Étienne Léopold Trouvelot / Public domain)

According to Phil Plait, “The Bad Astronomer,” it’s a mystery why he drew it that way.

“His possible he was seeing persistent trains, the glowing vaporized rock of the meteoroid that can last for several minutes, “Plait told ScienceAlert.

“High level winds can blow them in weird, twisted shapes consistent with what he drew. It takes time, so the fact that he drew a shiny head on it may have been a bit of an interpretation. artistic.”

Modern photography captures in an instant what an artist from another era would take the time to contemplate. If one can only guess at Trouvelot’s inspiration, it’s small details like these that preserve a perspective on objective observations.

In 1882, the main scientific works and writings of Trouvelot were published by Charles Scribner’s Sons under the title Trouvelot’s manual of astronomical drawings. It would also be the year when Trouvelot would return to France, to live his last years in peace.

The history of science is full of inspiring stories and warnings. Yet it is rare to find them both so closely side by side in the same biography, as we do with Étienne Léopold Trouvelot.


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