How Do You Paint an Eclipse? Work Fast in the Dark

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A third of the way through “Macbeth,” right after the antihero murders the king of Scotland, two noblemen look up into the sky and behold a celestial horror. “By the clock, ’tis day,” says the Thane of Ross, “And yet dark night strangles the traveling lamp.” The sun has been blotted out over the Highlands, and Ross has a sense of why; the political has become astronomical, and crimes on earth are reflected above.

On Monday, the sun goes out over America, as a total solar eclipse passes over the width of the continental United States for the first time since 1918. It may be tempting, for some, to take a Macbethian reading of the country plunged into waking darkness for the first time since World War I — but now we know better (don’t we?) than to blame governments for the transit of heavenly bodies. A solar eclipse occurs whenever the moon passes between Earth and the sun; they are so predictable that NASA offers a search engine of future eclipses out to the year 3000.

When that 1918 eclipse passed over the United States, a team of astronomers invited the artist Howard Russell Butler to join them at an observatory in Oregon, and to document what will appear in untold millions of blurry Instagrams on Monday afternoon. It was the first of four eclipses that he saw, and his paintings of lunar transits and other celestial phenomena are on view in “Transient Effects: The Solar Eclipses and Celestial Landscapes of Howard Russell Butler,” a small, lovely show at the Princeton University Art Museum here. His soft-colored, scrupulously accurate paintings of the occluded sun were among the first artistic depictions of individual eclipses, and they document just what an observer in a given spot would have seen. They offer a jolly curtain raiser for Monday’s eclipse, and also continue a recent vogue for exhibitions that marry art and science.

Butler (1856-1934) was a prosperous alumnus of Princeton’s science school, but in his 20s he turned to painting and arts advocacy. (He was president of Carnegie Hall for nearly a decade.) At first he concentrated on portraiture and landscape, but his scientific training came in handy when he beheld an aurora borealis off the coast of Maine. Rather than attempt to paint the streaks of green, turquoise and violet while outside, he quickly sketched the shapes and contours of the aurora and then made exacting notes on its shades. A century before Photoshop taught us to designate colors via numerical values of hue, saturation and luminosity, Butler employed formulas to designate what colors went where, and used both his notes and his sense memories to paint the cosmos.

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