The Best Lithograph Ever Made of the Planet Mars. Made by the "Audubon of the Sky", Etienne Trouvleot.
Beautiful four-stone color lithograph of the planet Mars, by Etienne Trouvelot, relating his observations during the Great Martian Opposition of 1877, an event that sparked decades of intense study of the planet.
The chromolithograph was published as part of Trouvelot's Astronomical Drawings set of 15 plates by Charles Scribner's Sons in 1882.
The Great Opposition of 1877
The lithograph was made from a drawing done by Trouvelot on September 3rd, 1877, at 11:55 PM, during the so-called "Great Opposition" of Mars. That event was extremely important to the early study of Mars because of the unusual proximity of the planet vis-a-vis Earth. This allowed for improved observation of Mars, especially since new, more powerful telescopes (such as the 26-inch refractor at the U.S. Naval Observatory) had gone into operation since the last opposition in 1860.
Trouvelot made his observation two days before Mars was in total perihelic opposition on September 5. At that point, it was only 35 million miles away from earth.
The Opposition of 1877 resulted in two major discoveries and several other important findings. The most important was Asaph Hall's discoveries of Mars's two moons, Phobos and Deimos. Giovanni Virginio Schiaparelli, the Italian astronomer, made a landmark study of the planet during the opposition, which resulted in his discovery of the Martian canali (or channels), which became popularly known as the Martian canals, and led to decades of theories about life on Mars.
Percival Lowell continued the work of studying the Martian channel structures in the 1890s from a private observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona. His drawings of the planet are redolent of Trouvelot's and we can infer an influence.
Nathaniel Green, another artist and amateur astronomer, made observations of Mars from Madiera, using a 13-inch refractor. He drew a fairly detailed map of the surface.
Trouvelot's prints were originally intended for the astronomical and scientific community and most of the larger US observatories purchased copies of the portfolio. In 2002, B.G. Corbin undertook a census to determine the number of surviving copies of the complete set of 15 prints and was only able to confirm the existence of 4 complete sets.
Today, the individual prints are even rarer than the complete sets; we find no instances of the present print having been offered separately either by a dealer or at auction.
Trouvelot (1827-1895) was born in Guyencourt, Aisne, France. During his early years he was apparently involved in politics and had Republican leanings. Following a coup d'état by Louis Napoleon in 1852, he fled or was exiled with his family to the United States, arriving in 1855. They settled in the town of Medford, Massachusetts, where he worked as an artist and nature illustrator. In both 1860 and '70 census, his occupation is listed as lithographer.
Trouvelot had an interest as an amateur entomologist. In the U.S., silk-producing moths were being killed off by various diseases. Trouvelot brought some Gypsy Moth egg masses from Europe in late 1866 and was raising gypsy moth larvae in the forest behind his house. Trouvelot apparently understood the danger posed by the Gypsy Moths and housed them under netting. Unfortunately, an egg mass went missing during a storm in 1869. He immediately realized the potential problem he had caused and notified some nearby entomologists, but nothing was done. This story has been called into question, based on earlier reports Trouvelot made that his netting had holes in it large enough for robins to fit through and eat his caterpillars.
Shortly following this incident, Trouvelot lost interest in entomology and turned to astronomy. In this field he could put his skills as an artist to good use by illustrating his observations. His interest in astronomy was apparently aroused in 1870 when he witnessed several auroras.
When Joseph Winlock, the director of Harvard College Observatory, saw the quality of his illustrations, he invited Trouvelot onto their staff in 1872. In 1875, he was invited to the U.S. Naval Observatory to use the 26-inch refractor for a year. During the course of his life he produced about 7,000 quality astronomical illustrations. 15 of his most superb pastel illustrations were published by Charles Scribner's Sons in 1881. He was particularly interested in the Sun, and discovered "veiled spots" in 1875. Besides his illustrations, he published about 50 scientific papers.
In 1878, Trouvelot and his son traveled to Creston, Wyoming Territory, to observe the total eclipse of the Sun on July 29.
By 1882, Trouvelot had returned to France and joined the Meudon Observatory. He worked there under Jules Janssen, a leading solar astronomer. However, Trouvelot resented the cloudy French sky, which impeded his observations. He traveled with Janssen to the Caroline Islands in the South Pacific to observe the total eclipse of 1883 and attempt to discover the phantom intra-Mercurial planet.
Trouvelot died at Meudon on April 22, 1895. At the time he was working on a monograph of Mars. His son, George, hoped to find a publisher for Etienne's drawings of Mars, but was unsuccessful. The whereabouts of almost all of the drawings left by Trouvelot to his family are currently unknown.