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Hermann Hesse on the Three Types of Readers and Why the Most Transcendent Form of Reading Is Non-reading

“At the hour when our imagination and our ability to associate are at their height, we really no longer read what is printed on the paper but swim in a stream of impulses and inspirations that reach us from what we are reading.”

Hermann Hesse on the Three Types of Readers and Why the Most Transcendent Form of Reading Is Non-reading

Categories are how we navigate the world, for better or for worse — this impulse toward organization helps us (to borrow Umberto Eco’s wonderful phrase) make infinity comprehensible, but its perilous flipside is the seedbed of stereotypes.

Hermann Hesse (July 2, 1877–August 9, 1962) placed this paradoxical nature of categories at the heart of his taxonomy of the three types of readers — a sort of fluid hierarchy of reading modes, which he outlined in an altogether magnificent 1920 essay titled “On Reading Books.” It was later included in My Belief: Essays on Life and Art (public library) — the terrific Hesse anthology that gave us the beloved writer and Nobel laureate on why the book will never lose its magic.


From ancient mythology to modern psychology, Hesse notes, the human experience is strewn with such taxonomies of character. He writes:

We have an inborn tendency to establish types in our minds and to divide mankind according to them. [But] however advantageous and revealing such categories may be, no matter whether they spring from purely personal experience or from attempting a scientific establishment of types, at times it is a good and fruitful exercise to take a cross section of experience in another way and discover that each person bears traces of every type within himself and that diverse characters and temperaments can be found as alternating characteristics within a single individual.

There are, Hesse argues, such distinct temperaments when it comes to our personality as readers:

Since you may take a completely different attitude toward anything in the world, so you may toward the book.

Half a century before E.B. White proclaimed that children are “the most attentive, curious, eager, observant, sensitive, quick, and generally congenial readers on earth,” Hesse offers a hierarchical taxonomy predicated on the same sentiment. He outlines three key types, which can similarly coexist within a single reader over the course of a lifetime, beginning with the naïve reader — the reader who experiences a book merely as content, be it intellectual or aesthetic:

Everyone reads naïvely at times. This reader consumes a book as one consumes food, he eats and drinks to satiety, he is simply a taker, be he a boy with a book about Indians, a servant girl with a novel about countesses, or a student with Schopenhauer. This kind of reader is not related to a book as one person is to another but rather as a horse to his manager or perhaps as a horse to his driver: the book leads, the reader follows. The substance is taken objectively, accepted as reality. But the substance is only one consideration! There are also highly educated, very refined readers, especially of belles letters, who belong entirely to the class of the naïve… What the material, setting, and action are to simple souls, the art, language education, and intellectuality of the writer are to these cultivated readers.


This kind of reader assumes in an uncomplicated way that a book is there simply and solely to be read faithfully and attentively and to be judged according to its content or its form. Just as a loaf of bread is there to be eaten and a bed to be slept in.

He then turns to the second type of reader, which one might call (though Hesse does not provide a concrete term) the imaginative investigator — a reader endowed with childlike wonderment, who sees past the superficialities of content to plumb the depths of the writer’s creative impulse:

If one follows one’s nature and not one’s education one becomes a child again and begins to play with things; the bread becomes a mountain to bore tunnels into, and the bed a cave, a garden, a snow field. Something of this child-likeness, this genius for play, is exhibited by the second type of reader. This reader treasures neither the substance nor the form of a book as its single most important value. He knows, in the way children know, that every object can have ten or a hundred meanings for the mind. He can, for example, watch a poet or philosopher struggling to persuade himself and this reader of his interpretation and evaluation of things, and he can smile because he sees in the apparent choice and freedom of the poet simply compulsion and passivity. This reader is already so far advanced that he knows what professors of literature and literary critics are mostly completely ignorant of: the there is no such thing as a free choice of material or form.


From this point of view the so-called aesthetic values almost disappear, and it can be precisely the writer’s mishaps and uncertainties that furnish much the greatest charm and value. For this reader follows the poet not the way a horse obeys his driver but the way a hunter follows his prey, and a glimpse suddenly gained into what lies beyond the apparent freedom of the poet, into the poet’s compulsion and passivity, can enchant him more than all the elegance of good technique and cultivated style.

Art by Maurice Sendak for The Big Green Book by Robert Graves

Next comes the final type of reader, who is really a non-reader but rather a dreamer and interpreter:

The third and last type of reader … is apparently the exact reverse of what is generally called a “good” reader. He is so completely an individual, so very much himself, that he confronts his reading matter with complete freedom. He wishes neither to educate nor to entertain himself, he uses a book exactly like any other object in the world, for him it is simply a point of departure and a stimulus. Essentially it makes no difference to him what he reads. He does not need a philosopher in order to learn from him, to adopt his teaching, or to attack or criticize him. He does not read a poet to accept his interpretation of the world; he interprets it for himself. He is, if you like, completely a child. He plays with everything — and from one point of view there is nothing more fruitful and rewarding than to play with everything. If this reader finds a beautiful sentence in a book, a truth, a word of wisdom, he begins by experimentally turning it upside down.

In a sentiment which Nobel-winning physicist Frank Wilczek would come to echo nearly a century later in his assertion that “you can recognize a deep truth by the feature that its opposite is also a deep truth,” Hesse adds:

[This reader] has known for a long time that for each truth the opposite also is true. He has known for a long time that every intellectual point of view is a pole to which an equally valid antipole exists. He is a child insofar as he puts a high value on associative thinking, but he knows the other sort as well.

But what grants this reader her or his superiority over the other types is, above all, a trained capacity for associative thinking that turns the reading material into a springboard for indiscriminate curiosity from which to leap far beyond the particular substance of the particular book. (A quarter century later, the inventor Vannevar Bush would describe the same psychological orientation in his prescient vision for the type of person who would triumph in the Information Age — the person who can “find delight in the task of establishing useful trails through the enormous mass of the common record.”) Hesse writes:

This reader is able, or rather each one of us is able, at the hour in which he is at this stage, to read whatever he likes, a novel or grammar, a railroad timetable, a galley proof from the printer. At the hour when our imagination and our ability to associate are at their height, we really no longer read what is printed on the paper but swim in a stream of impulses and inspirations that reach us from what we are reading. They may come out of the text, they may simply emerge from the type face. An advertisement in a newspaper can become a revelation; the most exhilarating, the most affirmative thoughts can spring from a completely irrelevant word if one turns it about, playing with its letters as with a jigsaw puzzle. In this stage one can read the story of Little Read Riding Hood as a cosmogony or philosophy, or as a flowery erotic poem. Or one can read the label “Colorado maduro” on a box of cigars, play with the words, letters, and sounds, and thereby take a tour through the hundred kingdoms of knowledge, memory, and thought.

Art by Maurice Sendak for The Big Green Book by Robert Graves

Hesse addresses the potential protestation that using a book as the trigger for a Rube Goldberg machine of interpretive associations is not “reading” at all — for is it really reading to devour “a page of Goethe unconcerned about Goethe’s intentions and meanings”? The objector, he imagines, would accuse this reading mode of being “the lowest, most childish and barbaric” of all. The objection, he concedes, is a valid one. And yet it contains within its validity the very point — each mode of reading is necessary for a full life, but it is insufficient in and of itself. “It must be emphasized that no one of us need belong permanently to any one of these types,” he cautions. In a passage that calls to mind Umberto Eco’s notion of the antilibrary, Hesse writes:

The reader at the their stage is no longer a reader. The person who remained there permanently would soon not read at all, for the design in a rug or the arrangement of the stones in a wall would be of exactly as great a value to him as the most beautiful page full of the best-arranged letters. The one book for him would be a page with the letters of the alphabet.

So be it: the reader at the last stage is really no longer a reader at all, he doesn’t give a hoot about Goethe, he doesn’t read Shakespeare. The reader in the last stage simply doesn’t read any more. Why books? Has he not the entire world within himself?

Half a century before Agnes Martin’s memorable observation that “we all have the same inner life [but] the artist has to recognize what it is,” Hesse adds:

Whoever remained permanently at this stage would not read any more, but no one does remain permanently at this stage. But whoever is not acquainted with this stage is a poor, an immature reader. He does not know that all the poetry and all the philosophy in the world lie within him too, that he greatest poet drew from no other source than the one each of us has within his own being. For just once in your life remain for an hour, a day at the third stage, the stage of not-reading-any-more. You will thereafter (it’s so easy to slip back) be that much better a reader, that much better a listener and interpreter of everything written. Stand just once at the stage where the stone by the road means as much to you as Goethe and Tolstoy, you will thereafter gain from Goethe, Tolstoy, and all poets infinitely more value, more sap and honey, more affirmation of life and of yourself than ever before. For the works of Goethe are not Goethe and the volumes of Dostoevsky are not Dostoevsky, they are only an attempt, a dubious and never successful attempt, to conjure up the many-voiced multitudinous world of which he was the central point.

Hesse likens this type of reading to a dream, or perhaps to what Stephen King has termed “creative sleep.” Dreaming transmogrifies the raw material of reality, gathered in our waking life, into fanciful creations of the consciousness set free from the constraints of reality. Similarly, this type of reading uses the actual text on the page as raw material for the imaginative meanderings of the mind. Hesse writes:

A dream is the opening through which you see into the content of your soul, and this content is the world, no more and no less than the world, the whole world from your birth up to today, from Homer to Heinrich Mann, from Japan to Gibraltar, from Sirius to the Earth, from Red Riding Hood to Bergson. — And to the extent that your attempt to write down your dream is related to the world that embraces that dream, so the work of an author is related to what he tired to say.


Without having recognized this, be it only a single time, in all its infinite fullness and inexhaustible significance, you stand handicapped before every poet and thinker, you take for the whole what is a small part, you believe in interpretations that barely touch the surface.


The third stage at which you are most yourself will put an end to your reading, will dissolve poetry, will dissolve art, will dissolve world history. And yet unless you intuitively know this stage, you will never read any book, any science or art except as a schoolboy reads his grammar.

Hesse’s My Belief, it bears repeating, is a transcendent read in its entirety. Complement this particular fragment with Virginia Woolf on how to read a book, Patti Smith on the two types of masterpieces, C.S. Lewis on why we read, and a very old Robert Graves’s subversive celebration of how books transform us, illustrated by a very young Maurice Sendak.


The Power of Solidarity in the Conquest of Justice: How Sixteen White Poets Banded Against Police Brutality and Stood Up for Amiri Baraka in 1968

A beacon of searing solidarity by Denise Levertov, Charles Olson, Allen Ginsberg, Robert Duncan, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and other politically awake titans of poetic might.

The Power of Solidarity in the Conquest of Justice: How Sixteen White Poets Banded Against Police Brutality and Stood Up for Amiri Baraka in 1968

On a recent visit to the archive of the Academy of American Poets, which dates back to the 1930s and includes a wealth of ephemera by and about nearly every major poet of the past century, I chanced upon something that stopped my breath with its potency and timeliness — a 1968 open letter by an impressive roster starring some of the most prominent writers in the country, concerning the beating, arrest, and sentencing of Amiri Baraka (October 7, 1934–January 9, 2014). The morning of my visit, almost half a century after the letter was written, news had broken of another heartbreaking case of police brutality with racial dimensions.

Some necessary context first: A prolific poet, essayist, playwright, music critic, novelist, and short story writer, Baraka, born LeRoi Jones, was a literary polymath with a strong political bend. His politics were radical and revolutionary, yes, but his writing was responsive rather than reactive. One of the most important and influential black voices in literary history, alongside titans like James Baldwin, he modeled the art of choosing poetic response over reflexive reaction amid a culture whose propensity for the latter and paucity of the former have only intensified in the half-century since.

Amiri Baraka in 1964
Amiri Baraka in 1964

Baraka urged black artists to cease measuring themselves against the standards of the white middle class, which are bound to always end in a repression of their authentic voice and a sense of personal failure. He influenced beloved writers like Nikki Giovanni and Adrienne Rich, who wrote at the end of her long life:

I would urge any serious student of the human scene, certainly any poet, who has not recently, or ever, read [Baraka’s 1964 poetry collection] The Dead Lecturer: borrow a copy from the public library, from a friend’s bookshelf, or get hold of it secondhand.

But Baraka became an exponentially contentious figure as he marched along the axis of his life. Having started out in the kinship circle of the Beats, with Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac as his peers, he traveled to Cuba in 1960 in Langston Hughes’s stead on a delegation of black writers invited to celebrate the first anniversary of the Cuban Revolution. A gifted twenty-something hungry for the spirit of rebellion, Baraka had his first taste of radical politics and was instantly intoxicated. “My mind and my life were changed forever,” he would later reflect on the trip.

Upon returning to New York, Baraka became increasingly awake to racial injustice. The assassination of Malcolm X in 1965 unsettled him into a new phase of life. He left his wife and two daughters, moved from the Village to Harlem, founded The Black Arts Repertory/Theater School, and was instrumental in advancing the Black Arts Movement. His writing became increasingly incendiary, animated by a restless sense of injustice, which in turn rendered him increasingly controversial. To be uncontroversial in one’s devotion to political change, of course, is to be ineffectual, for it is impossible to upend the status quo without the status quo shrieking “Fiddlesticks!” at the upender. But in his crusade against racial bigotry, Baraka danced dangerously close with other kinds of prejudicial propaganda.

I should note here that while I am among the many troubled by the misogynistic, anti-Semitic, and homophobic remarks in some of Baraka’s writings, as well as by his pro-violence stance in explosive opposition to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr’s ethic of love and nonviolence, I am of the firm belief that if we are unable to make space for simultaneous contradictory truths, we are floundering at a basic task of being human. And what remains true is that, despite these questionable statements, Baraka has made an enormous and lasting contribution to the social, political, and poetic discourse in this country.

More than that, any human being who is fully alive and awake to the world has a duty to be continually changing her or his opinions, always evolving, like the universe itself, toward greater complexity. To judge who a person “Is” on the basis of their views at a particular point in time is to deny them the dignity of continual being, for at any given moment we are only ever seeing a static slice of the person’s dynamic becoming, which stretches across the evolving context of an entire lifetime.

Baraka is a supreme example: Late in life, in an introduction to a new edition of his 1965 collection Home: Social Essays (public library) — most of which he had written in his twenties — he reflects:

One heavy and aggravating problem with these early writings is that I’ve long since changed my views on some topics… For instance, the homophobic language in several of the essays … using the word “fag” homeboy style to refer to the right-leaning liberalism of too many Americans, males as well as females, is wrongheaded and unscientific… Now I must openly regret and apologize for the use of that metaphorically abusive term that was then part of my vocabulary.

In 1966, a year after the essay collection was originally published, 32-year-old Baraka — still LeRoi Jones at the time — moved back home to Newark. He recounts:

It was on my return to Newark in 1966 that what I knew superficially was thrust forcefully upon me to fully understand: that there were classes and class struggle among black people, just like all peoples. Coming home and seeing these struggles around real social and political issues transformed me from cultural nationalist to communist.

The following year, after traveling to Los Angeles and becoming enchanted by Kawaida — an activist philosophy celebrating indigenous African names — he changed his name to Imamu (honorific Swahili for “spiritual leader,” from the Arabic imam) Amear (derived from the Arabic for “prince”) Baraka (“divine blessing” in the Islamic tradition), which he eventually condensed into Amiri Baraka.

That July, riots broke out in Newark over the systemic police brutality to which the city’s black residents had been subjected. In The Autobiography of LeRoi Jones (public library), Baraka recounts what happened late the first night of the upheaval:

The streets were quiet, eerie quiet, and it was pitch black and maybe one in the morning. We were moving slowly down South 7th Street … when we saw the lights. Red lights like vicious eyes blinking. A riot of red lights blinking. Like Devils or pieces of hell. We were slowing down, and the lights seemed to get frantic, batting and winking, little silent splinters of scream. Then we could see under the streetlights piles of police cars, maybe five or six. For one instant we started to stop and back up or try to U-turn or even speed up on the sidewalk and go past. But the fantasy had stopped. All of us could sense that if we did anything we would die. We could see the shotguns and helmets. They had the street blocked and as we slowed pulling up to them we looked at each other and got ourselves ready.

A mob of police surrounded the van, two of them pulling open the front and back doors. They had their shotguns and handguns trained on us as they dragged us out the doors. Shorty, Barney, and I. I heard one guy say, “These are the bastards who’ve been shooting at us!”

Another shouted, “Where are the guns?”

Then another cop stepped forward, I think he was saying the same thing. What was really out is that this cop I recognized, we had gone to high school together! His name was Salvatore Mellillo. The classic Italian American face. “Hey, I know you,” I said, just as the barrel of his .38 smashed into my forehead, dropping me into half-consciousness and covering every part of me with blood. Now blows rained down on my head. One dude was beating me with the long nightstick. I was held and staggering. The blood felt hot in my face. I couldn’t see, I could only feel the wet hot blood covering my entire head and face and hands and clothes. They were beating me to death. I could feel the blows and the crazy pain but I was already removed from conscious life. I was being murdered and I knew it.

Eventually, onlookers from nearby buildings attempted to intervene by shouting and throwing household objects at the police. To avoid a public scene, and possibly to escape the legal ramifications of eyewitness testimony, the cops shoved the three bleeding young men into a police car and took them to the station. Baraka was thrown in jail. Meanwhile, 23 of his fellow citizens were killed in the streets — 21 black and two white, a policeman and a fireman. That was the official count — but Baraka believed that many more blacks were killed, their bodies and records hidden away. The city incurred material damaged estimated at $10 million, mostly to the black community.

Baraka, with a visible wound on his forehead, after his arrest (Photograph: Fred W. McDarrah / Getty)
Baraka, with a visible wound on his forehead, after his arrest (Photograph: Fred W. McDarrah / Getty)

The police cited gun possession as the reason for Baraka’s arrest, but the poet insisted that he never had any weapons. He was tried by a racist judge, later removed from office for misconduct, and was released on a $25,000 bail — around $180,000 in today’s money, adjusted for inflation, and a record at the time — which his mother and her friends had scrapped together by putting up their homes as collateral. The trial, which Baraka later called “a comic opera,” only escalated the civil unrest. Eventually, the National Guard was sent into Newark and stationed in a vacant lot across from the jail.

The National Guard in the streets of Newark, July 1967 (Photograph: Don Hogan Charles / The New York Times)
The National Guard in the streets of Newark, July 1967 (Photograph: Don Hogan Charles / The New York Times)

On November 6, Baraka and his two friends were convicted on charges of illegal possession of two revolvers. Until his death nearly half a century later, the poet maintained that the evidence had been manufactured.

And so this brings us to what I found in the archive of the Academy — a hope-giving beacon of searing solidarity amid an episode of harrowing darkness both in the poet’s particular life and in the common life of our larger civil society.

Written in January of 1968, this open letter to the country’s creative community is co-signed by sixteen of the most important poets alive at the time, including Denise Levertov, Charles Olson, and Allen Ginsberg, all of them white. In a clever play on both the police and the Congress of Afrikan People (CAP) which Baraka had founded, they called themselves the “Committee on Poetry” — COP.


Committee on Poetry

We believe LeRoi Jones, not the Newark Police, that the poet carried no revolvers in his car, no revolvers in the car at all; that the police beat Jones up and then had to find a reason, thus found phony guns; that after the double-whammy of his beating and rabbit-in-hat guns, his trial before an all-white jury was triple-whammy. Lo & behold, fourth execrable whammy! — the Judge recited LeRoi’s visionary poem to the court (a butchered version) … and gave him a long 2½-3 year sentence because of it.

Mr. Jones’ whitekind is that self-same demon we call tyranny, injustice, dictatorship. As poet he champions the black imagination; as revolutionary poet his revolution is fought with words. He scribes that the police carried the guns. Lyres tell the Truth!

We herald to literary persons: get on the ball for LeRoi Jones, or else get off the poetic pot. LeRoi Jones is not only a black man, a Newark man, a revolutionary, he is a conspicuous American artist imprisoned for his poetry during a crisis of Authoritarianism in these States.


John Ashbery
Gregory Corso
Robert Creeley
Diane di Prima
Robert Duncan
Lawrence Ferlinghetti
Allen Ginsberg
Kenneth Koch
Denise Levertov
Michael McClure
Charles Olson
Joel Oppenheimer
Peter Orlovsky
Gil Sorrentino
Philip Whalen
John Wieners

Baraka didn’t serve the sentence, and perhaps these sentences served his case — over the months that followed, public awareness of and outrage over his fate continued to gain momentum; a different judge overturned the verdict for lack of evidence in 1969.

And so today, when half a century of temporal progression has yielded shamefully insufficient cultural progress in the plight of civil rights, when we wonder what we can do about the anguishing injustice of it all, may we never forget the power of solidarity with our brothers and sisters of different stripes, those repressed and oppressed for any dimension of their identity. May we never forget the power of standing on the side of justice and speaking up, publicly and unflinchingly. May we never forget the power of the poetic as a vehicle for political change.

The Academy of American Poets, while enormous in scope, legacy, and cultural significance, is a modest organization powered by a tiny, passionate team. Join me in supporting their tremendous work of poetic advocacy with a donation, which will help, among other things, digitize and make widely accessible their extraordinary analog archive.


Étienne Léopold Trouvelot’s Stunning 19th-Century Astronomical Drawings of Celestial Objects and Phenomena

The splendor of the cosmos in a trailblazing marriage of art and science more than a century before modern astrophotography.

Étienne Léopold Trouvelot’s Stunning 19th-Century Astronomical Drawings of Celestial Objects and Phenomena

“I sometimes ask myself whether I would be studying galaxies if they were ugly,” pioneering astronomer Vera Rubin observed in reflecting on our ongoing quest to know the universe. Hardly anyone has championed the role of beauty as a catalyst for cosmic enchantment more powerfully than the French artist and astronomer Étienne Léopold Trouvelot (December 26, 1827–April 22, 1895).

Trouvelot published more than fifty scientific papers in his lifetime, but remains best known for his exquisite astronomical illustrations. He created more than seven thousand, among them some of the most beguiling contributions to our long history of visualizing the cosmos. Emma Converse — the remarkable forgotten woman who popularized astronomy a century before Carl Sagan — called Trouvelot “the prince of observers.” The aesthetic splendor and scientific rigor of his illustrations so impressed the director of the Harvard Observatory that Trouvelot was invited to join the observatory staff, which he did in 1872.

Étienne Léopold Trouvelot
Étienne Léopold Trouvelot

Determined to make astronomy more accessible and captivating to the public, he set about depicting “the celestial phenomena as they appear to a trained eye and to an experienced draughtsman.” Using the era’s “great modern telescopes, provided with the most delicate instrumental appliances,” he made astronomical observations and translated them into stunning art, most remarkable of which were his painstaking pastel drawings created over the course of two years in the early 1870s — a period when Eadweard Muybridge was pioneering another revolutionary union of art and science on the other side of the country.

The planet Mars, observed September 3, 1877, 11:55 P.M.
Total eclipse of the sun, observed July 29, 1878, at Creston, Wyoming Territory
Total eclipse of the sun, observed July 29, 1878, at Creston, Wyoming Territory

The best of Trouvelot’s pastels were exhibited alongside Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone, Heinz Ketchup, the first commercially successful typewriter, and the torch-clutching right arm of the Statue of Liberty at the first World’s Fair in Philadelphia — the Centennial International Exhibition of 1876, celebrating the 100th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence.

Part of the Milky Way, from a study made between 1874 and 1876
Part of the Milky Way, from a study made between 1874 and 1876

In 1882, Charles Scribner’s Sons published Trouvelot’s scientific writings about the phenomena he observed as The Trouvelot Astronomical Drawings Manual (public library | public domain).

Mare Humorum, from a study made in 1875
Mare Humorum, from a study made in 1875
Star clusters in Hercules, from a study made in June of 1877
Star clusters in Hercules, from a study made in June of 1877

Trouvelot writes in the introduction, penned in March of 1882:

During a study of the heavens, which has now been continued for more than fifteen years, I have made a large number of observations pertaining to physical astronomy, together with many original drawings representing the most interesting celestial objects and phenomena.


While my aim in this work has been to combine scrupulous fidelity and accuracy in the details, I have also endeavored to preserve the natural elegance and the delicate outlines peculiar to the objects depicted; but in this, only a little more than a suggestion is possible, since no human skill can reproduce upon paper the majestic beauty and radiance of the celestial objects.

The planet Jupiter, observed November 1, 1880, 9:30 P.M.
The planet Jupiter, observed November 1, 1880, 9:30 P.M.
The great comet of 1881, observed on June 26, 1:30 A.M.
The great comet of 1881, observed on June 26, 1:30 A.M.
Aurora Borealis, observed March 1, 1872,  9:25 P.M.
Aurora Borealis, observed March 1, 1872, 9:25 P.M.

Indeed, there is a largehearted and deeply humane aliveness to Trouvelot’s work. Bellowing from it is also a peculiar paean to how art, science, and technology shape one another. The instruments with which he made his observations ranged from 6 to 26 inches in aperture and the primary telescope he used was 26 inches long. For comparison, the Gran Telescopio Canarias — currently Earth’s largest telescope — has an aperture of 409 inches; the Hubble Space Telescope, which has furnished our most picturesque images of the cosmos, is 516 inches long.

It is through this lens of technology’s limitations that Trouvelot, writing at the dawn of astrophotography, makes a beautiful case for the irreplaceable rewards of the artistic human touch beyond the mechanical imaging of instruments:

Although photography renders valuable assistance to the astronomer in the case of the Sun and Moon … for other subjects, its products are in general so blurred and indistinct that no details of any great value can be secured. A well-trained eye alone is capable of seizing the delicate details of structure and of configuration of the heavenly bodies, which are liable to be affected, and even rendered invisible, by the slightest changes in our atmosphere.

Solar protuberances, observed on May 5, 1873, 9:40 A.M.
Solar protuberances, observed on May 5, 1873, 9:40 A.M.
The great nebula in Orion, from a study made between 1875 and 1876
The great nebula in Orion, from a study made between 1875 and 1876
The planet Saturn, observed on November 30, 1874, 5:30 P.M.
The planet Saturn, observed on November 30, 1874, 5:30 P.M.

Trouvelot used a meticulous technique to create his drawings: At the eyepiece of the telescope, he placed a gridded reticle etched in glass, so that the telescopic image would appear projected onto the reticle. He would then copy the projection onto a sheet of ruled paper gridded with corresponding squares, using that as the skeleton of the pastel drawing.

The November meteors, observed between midnight and 5 A.M. on  November 13-14, 1868
The November meteors, observed between midnight and 5 A.M. on November 13-14, 1868

Unlike the rest of his illustrations, which depict objects and phenomena as they appear in a single moment in time, Trouvelot’s drawing of the November meteor shower is a progenitor of timelapse photography. It represents what he called “an ideal view.” Rather than capturing the sky at any one moment, the drawing composites multiple shooting stars out of the three thousand observed between midnight and 5 A.M. that night. Although most of the meteors depicted did not cross the sky at the same time in actuality, Trouvelot preserved the actual color and trajectory of each in the idealized composite drawing.

Group of sun spots and veiled spots, observed on June 17, 1875, 7:30 A.M.
Group of sun spots and veiled spots, observed on June 17, 1875, 7:30 A.M.

Beyond the abiding aesthetic pleasures of his work, Trouvelot made substantive contributions to science. He was especially enchanted by the Sun and, during his time at the Harvard Observatory, discovered what he called “veiled spots” — solar phenomena that had mystified stargazers since antiquity. He writes:

[Unlike] the ordinary Sun-spots … they always appear as if seen through a fog, or veil, between the granulations of the solar surface. On account of their vagueness and ill-defined contours, I have proposed for these objects the term, “Veiled Spots.”

Veiled spots have a shorter duration than the ordinary spots, the smaller types sometimes forming and vanishing in a few minutes. Some of the larger veiled spots, however, remain visible for several days in succession, and show the characteristics of other spots in regard to the arrangement of their parts. The veiled spots have no umbra or penumbra, although they are usually accompanied by faculae resembling those seen near the ordinary spots. They are frequently seen in the polar regions, but are there always of small size and of short duration.

Partial eclipse of the moon, observed October 24, 1874
Partial eclipse of the moon, observed October 24, 1874

Currently in the public domain, Trouvelot’s exquisite drawings have been generously digitized by the New York Public Library. I have cleaned up, color-corrected, and restored the illustrations to make them available as high-quality prints with proceeds benefiting the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, which oversees the Harvard Observatory where Trouvelot made his most significant observations.

Complement Trouvelot’s exquisite marriage of art and science with an abstract contemporary counterpart in artist Lia Halloran’s stunning cyanotypes celebrating women in astronomy.


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