700 Years Of Art Inspired By Eclipses

From 13th century China to 19th century France, eclipses have mesmerized and inspired many artists.

Today’s long-awaited full solar eclipse will give many Americans the first chance see the phenomenon in their lifetimes. But artists have captured eclipses from their own perspectives through the centuries.


At the Princeton Art Museum, a new exhibition shows one artist’s representation of the 1918 total eclipse–the last full eclipse whose path crossed the continental U.S. The landscape painter Howard Russell Butler’s paintings are a serene but powerful perspective that photographs can’t quite capture–the moment when the moon passes directly in front of the sun, revealing the glorious rays of the sun’s corona.

[Photo: courtesy Princeton University Art Museum]
According to Rachael DeLue, an associate professor of art at Princeton, Butler’s aim was to merge art and science and create an impactful but scientifically accurate vision of the eclipse–similar to artist’s depictions of human anatomy or drawings of geological change. “Images like these defy the limits of vision by fixing or revealing features and nuances of form that are not visible through firsthand observation,” she writes on the exhibition’s robust website.

China, Southern Song or Yuan dynasties (13th–14th centuries), Sun Moon Funerary Vases (detail). [Image: courtesy Princeton University Art Museum]
The website also provides a look at the art of eclipses from different cultures, showing how eclipses have been represented through the ages. In ancient China, for instance, people believed that an eclipse was evidence that a dragon was trying to swallow the sun; an exquisite jade statuette shows this terrifying act in progress. In the 1500s, the painter Antoine Caron imagined the eclipse vastly differently–as almost a volcano in the sky His painting Dionysius the Areopagite Converting the Pagan Philosophers uses a fiery red eclipse as a dramatic, chaotic backdrop for the classical, symmetrical lines of a Roman-style city.

Fast forward centuries to 20th century France. One of the earliest filmmakers, George Méliés, used the eclipse as inspiration for a film with a title that translates to, The Eclipse: The Courtship of the Sun and the Moon. The nine-minute film shows astronomers gawking over the eclipse, then zooms in to show the moon and sun making comically flirty faces at each other. The moment of the eclipse itself is tinged with eroticism.

Other artists have far more abstract approaches. The American artist Alma Thomas’s graphic painting The Eclipse is a colorful abstraction of the natural phenomenon, turning the sun’s corona into mosaic-like bricks. Roy Lichtenstein has two paintings entitled Eclipse of the Sun, and both use the artist’s signature comic-book graphical style to depict a bold vision of the sun and moon. And the Ghanaian artist El Anatsui’s sculptural tapestry from 2014 entitled Solar Eclipse abstracts the event even further, with multiple spherical shapes possibly representing the evolution of the sun and moon, but remaining just out of grasp.

Alma Thomas, The Eclipse, 1970, acrylic on canvas. [Image: courtesy Smithsonian American Art Museum]
The website for the exhibition is meant to stand on its own as a digital show, presented with a beautiful custom graphic that animates the landing page and written expositions on each piece of art from Princeton scholars. It’s an eclipse resource in its own right, exploring the relationship between art and science.


Check out more artists’ representations of solar eclipses in the slideshow above.


About the author

Katharine Schwab is an associate editor at Co.Design based in New York who covers technology, design, and culture.