A Forgotten Cosmic Designer

By Lawrence, Jenny; Milner, Richard | Natural History, February 2000 | Go to article overview

A Forgotten Cosmic Designer


Lawrence, Jenny, Milner, Richard, Natural History


Artist-scientist Howard Russell Butler painted moons.capes and portraits of "Earth's richest man." but his plans for a hall of astronomy were eclipsed.

At the age of sixty-two, painter Howard Russell Butler was invited to join a U.S. Naval Observatory expedition to Oregon to chronicle the solar eclipse of June 8, 1918. "As a portrait painter:' he wrote in Natural History ("Painting Eclipses and Lunar Landscapes," July-August 1926), "1 generally asked for ten sittings of two hours each. But all the time they would allow me on this occasion was 112Vii) seconds." His finished painting eventually graced the Hayden Planetarium's rotunda.

To record color values, Butler relied on a shorthand system he had developed for use in "recording transient effects." The artist may have perfected his color shorthand while laboring over thirteen portraits of Andrew Carnegie, who reportedly could not sit still for long. Impressed with Butler's many talents (the painter had also been a professor of physics, a patent lawyer, and ail arts administrator), the steel magnate hired him to design a mansion on Fifth Avenue, create an artificial lake at Princeton University, and run the recently built Carnegie Hall. Butler's gift for creating celestial images (and his friendship with Carnegie) attracted the attention of American Museum of Natural History president Henry Fairfield Osborn, who asked him to design a hall of astronomy. In May 1925, Osborn wrote to the Carnegie Foundation: "I am confident that [it] will be the most inspirational and seductive of all our great Sections and will not only be a unique monument to Mr. …

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