Art and astronomy part I: The cosmos on canvas

Art and astronomy part I: The cosmos on canvas

Then I go out and paint the stars - Vincent van Gogh

Artikel Nashanty 3
By Iris Cornelissen

Art and astronomy have an intertwined relationship that dates back to ancient times. Before technology took over the modern world, astronomical events were often documented through drawings and paintings. The firmament was also often a source of inspiration for many and throughout the years, artists have tried to capture the heavens on canvas and paper. This resulted in a rich history of art and astronomy and a collection of stunning artworks inspired by the scintillating stars above.

The ancient days

During prehistoric times stars were often used for navigation, to keep track of time and mark (astronomical) events. This was done in the form of cave paintings and star charts. One of the oldest recorded encounters between art and astronomy are the famous Palaeolithic Lascaux cave paintings in France. The paintings are more than 15.000 years old and depict wild animals that researchers now believe to be drawings of constellations.

Cave painting
Fig. 1: Lascaux cave painting in France. Photo credit: Alistair Coombs.

Throughout the course of history, the Egyptians, Chinese, Greeks and Romans produced the first sets of recorded star charts depicting the sun, moon, constellations and the milky way.

Egyptian star chart
Fig 2: Egyptian star chart decorating the tomb of Senenmut (ca. 1479 – 1458 B.C.). The map shows the Egyptian sky and the deities. The stars and planets were painted in the upper part of the map in columns of text. The calendar is shown as twelve circles divided into twenty-four segments depicting the hours of the days. The month and year were written in symbols above each circle.
Dunhuang chinese star chart
Fig 3. Chinese star chart (ca. 700 AD) showing stars that are visible with the naked eye.

The Dark Ages & Renaissance period

During the medieval times, astronomy became one of the seven liberal arts in education. This new revival blossomed further into the Renaissance and fostered fascinating renditions of the night sky by artists and scientists such as Leonardo DaVinci’s famous ‘Da Vinci Glow’ and the detailed moon paintings by Galileo.

Medieval scholars studying astronomy
Fig 4: Medieval scholars studying astronomy (early 15th century).
Da Vinci Glow
Fig. 5: “Da Vinci Glow” (ca. 1510), also known as “Earthshine” where he explained the moon’s ghostly glow as a result of light reflection.
Arabic astronomers
Figure 6: Arabic astronomers studying the night sky (1513).
Fig 7: Galileo’s moon drawing (1609).
The astronomer
Fig 8: “The astronomer” by Dutch Painter Johannes Vermeer (1688).
Fig 9: Vintage astronomy chart (1670) by Dutch cartographer Frederik de Wit.
The great comet
Fig 10: The great comet of 1680 as seen over Rotterdam by Dutch Painter Lieve Verschuier.

More recent years

More artworks inspired by the celestial objects emerged over the years. Perhaps one of the most famous art pieces is the impressionistic “Starry Night” where Dutch painter Vincent van Gogh showed the view from his bedroom window.

Starry night
Fig 11: Starry night (1889) by Vincent van Gogh.

Astrophotography & Digital Art

Now with modern-day technology, the skies are not only painted but they are also photographed. Dedicated amateur astronomers produce breathtaking images of the cosmos that are being categorized in a new artistic field known as astrophotography.

Lagoon nebula
Fig. 12: The Lagoon Nebula, photographed by Trevor Jones.

In addition to photographers, digital artists are also using astronomy as a source of inspiration to create science-fiction space sceneries but to support current research as well. NASA in particular is famous for hiring digital artists to help visualize exo-worlds and astronomical phenomena such as the depiction of the TRAPPIST-1 planetary system:

Trappist 1
Fig. 13: Artist’s depiction of the Trappist-1 system. Image credit NASA
Fig. 14: Artist’s depiction of a galaxy with an active quasar at its center. Image credit NASA.

Ancient civilizations have marveled at the night skies for centuries and the cosmos continues to kindle the interest and curiosity of many people. Therefore, any artist struggling to find inspiration should take van Gogh’s advice to heart and simply go outside and paint the stars.


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