The upcoming solar eclipse will be visible in a fairly wide belt from Oregon to South Carolina. Many enthusiasts (including my neighbors) have made plans to vacation in prime viewing spots, since the phenomenon will not be visible in the Adirondacks. Here we will only experience a partial covering of the sun.
News of the eclipse has been widely reported in the press and on social media and seems to have captivated the nation. Thousands of webpages are devoted to the coming eclipse, from the official NASA site to some pretty strange sites better left unnamed. This isn’t so surprising; it strikes at something primitive in us, while at the same time piquing our post-modern interest in astronomical science, or even in the history of natural science.
And it also is nothing new.
The accompanying photograph is of a small, nineteenth century wash drawing of what appears to be a full solar eclipse. It was purchased some years ago at an Essex, N.Y. estate sale. The artist is Francois Alexander Pernot, a fairly obscure Frenchman who lived from 1793 to 1865 and who worked in England and Scotland for part of his career.
Pernot’s sepia toned drawing, measuring just three by five inches, was meticulously executed with a tiny brush and is best viewed under magnification. It depicts three people next to a ruined abbey. One carries a walking stick, while a companion points toward the eclipse and the third records it in a sketchbook. The landscape setting – with its architectural ruins overcome by wild nature and the ravages of time – is typical of the Romantic Period, although the depiction of an eclipse of any type would be considered rare in 19th century visual art.
A quick check of the aforementioned NASA site reveals a list of all historical eclipses from 2,000 B.C.E. to the present, and it shows that there were three full solar eclipses during Pernot’s working life – 1841, 1852 and 1860 – all in the month of July, and all visible only in Europe. There was also what is called an Annular Eclipse in Scotland in 1836. It featured what came to be known as Bailey’s Beads, which are a sort of visual ring around the outside of the sun’s orb.
Francois Pernot would have been 43 years old and at the height of his career, perhaps working in Scotland at the time. Whether this drawing depicts an annular or total solar eclipse is unclear, but in any event, it is interesting to look at this beautifully executed work of art and consider the upcoming full solar eclipse in an historical context. Perhaps it shows that our popular fascination for eclipses hasn’t diminished over the centuries.