The Sun in Art at the Smithsonian


There are so many amazing things to marvel at when we look up at the sky. To explore the depths of space, astronomers use telescopes and a host of other instruments. These instruments revealed the early life of the universe, the violent death of stars, and a multitude of planets. But even before these tools allowed us to look deeper, communities around the world and for long periods of time had looked up at the sky in curiosity and wonder. The sky is still a source of inspiration for many, and one star always shines brighter than others: the sun.

People have been fascinated by the sun for thousands of years. It touches every aspect of our life in multiple ways across time and space – a relationship we see not only in science but also in art. The sun was an inspiration for our creation of paintings, poems, music, stories and sculptures to name a few. Discover how artists express and represent the sun in works in the Smithsonian’s collections.

The whole solar system in one quilt.

Ellen Harding Baker, Solar system, 1876, rug, Smithsonian National Museum of American History. (Smithsonian Institution)

Ellen Harding Baker (1847-1886), a science teacher from rural Iowa, traveled to Chicago, Illinois to get a closer look at the sky through a telescope. She likely visited the original Dearborn Observatory, observing sunspots and the Great Comet of 1882. Comet of Coggia, a non-periodic comet that moved across the plains of the Midwest in 1874, would also have caught Baker’s attention. Baker combined her own celestial observations with textbook drawings and created them Solar system Rug. After seven years of sewing, she used the quilt as a teaching aid in her astronomy lectures. At a time when women in the United States were just beginning to gain access to astronomy, Baker found a way to combine women’s roles in teaching, the arts, and astronomy.

A teacher and artist paints a solar eclipse.

Alma Thomas, The solar eclipse, 1970, acrylic on canvas, Smithsonian American Art Museum. (Smithsonian Institution)

On March 7, 1970, on the east coast of the United States, a rare sight was seen – a total solar eclipse. The moon covered the sun for three and a half minutes. Only the light of the sun’s outermost layers of the atmosphere remained visible. It is not known if artist Alma Woodsey Thomas (1891-1978) witnessed this solar eclipse, but she was likely inspired by the moment she painted The solar eclipse (1970). The asymmetrical view in her works of art gives the impression of movement and the fleetingness of a solar eclipse, while the changing tone alludes to the ethereal light emanating from the sun. Thomas was an artist known for capturing everyday life through abstract snapshots in her signature style of blocks of color. The solar eclipse is one of fifteen paintings in her series “Space Paintings” that were created after two astronauts from the United States landed on the moon.

Months of sunshine.

Jonas Faber, Midnight sun, 2005, silver and gold pendants, Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian. (Smithsonian Institution)

On earth, the sun moves from east to west and begins and ends the day with its movement. In summer, the sun is higher in the daytime sky, which makes the days longer. For those who live near the North Pole above the Arctic Circle, summer brings the “midnight sun”. This occurs when the Earth’s north pole is tilted towards the sun, which in some places causes months when the sun never sets. The Inuit artist Jonasie Faber (* 1944) creates sculptures and jewelry, like this pendant with the title Midnight sun (2005) inspired by his Inuit heritage. The Inuit, indigenous peoples of the arctic countries in what is now Canada, Alaska and Greenland, experience various sun-induced phenomena because they live as far north as the midnight sun and the northern lights.

The sun is shining on all of us.

The Sunburst logo symbolizes the Smithsonian’s commitment to illuminating audiences everywhere. (Smithsonian Institution)

The Smithsonian itself uses the sun as a symbol of enlightenment in its logo, which speaks directly to our mission “For the increase and dissemination of knowledge …”. A look at the Smithsonian museums today, online or in person, shows the vast impact the sun has had on artists across all media.

We all find inspiration in the sun. Pay attention to the shadows that the sunlight casts through the trees, feel the warmth of a ray of sunshine through a window or look at the sun safely through one of our telescopes at the Phoebe Waterman Haas Observatory. What does the sun inspire you to do?

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