The Sun in Art at the Smithsonian


There are so many amazing things to behold when we look at the sky. To explore the depths of space, astronomers use telescopes and a variety of other instruments. These instruments revealed the beginnings of the life of the universe, the violent death of stars and a multitude of planets. But even before these tools allow us to look deeper, communities around the world and for much of the time have gazed at the sky with curiosity and wonder. The sky continues to be an inspiration to many, and one star has always shone brighter than the others: the Sun.

Humans have been fascinated by the Sun for millennia. It affects all aspects of our life in different ways across time and space – a relationship we see not only in science, but in art. The sun has been an inspiration in our creation of paintings, poems, music, stories and sculptures, to name a few. Find out how artists express and represent the Sun in works from the Smithsonian collections.

The whole solar system in one quilt.

Ellen Harding Baker, Solar system, 1876, woolen quilt, 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 more accurate view of the sky using a telescope. She likely visited the original Dearborn Observatory and observed sunspots and the Great Comet of 1882. Comet Coggia, a nonperiodic comet that passed over the Midwestern plains in 1874, is also said to have drawn attention. by Baker. Combining his own observations of the sky with drawings from textbooks, Baker designed it Solar system wool duvet. After seven years of sewing, she used the quilt as a teaching aid in her astronomy classes. At a time when women were only just beginning to have access to astronomy in the United States, Baker found a way to combine the roles of women in education, art, and astronomy.

A teacher and artist paints an eclipse.

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

On March 7, 1970, viewers on the east coast of the United States were treated to a rare spectacle: a total solar eclipse. For three and a half minutes, the Moon covered the Sun. Only the light from the outermost layers of the Sun’s atmosphere remained visible. It is not known if artist Alma Woodsey Thomas (1891 – 1978) witnessed this solar eclipse, but she was likely inspired by when she painted The eclipse (1970). The asymmetrical view expressed in his work gives the impression of movement and the fleeting nature of an eclipse, while the shifting tone hints at the ethereal light emanating from the Sun. Thomas was an artist known for capturing everyday life through abstract snapshots of moments in her signature color block style. The eclipse is one of fifteen paintings in his “Space Paintings” series, made after the United States landed two astronauts on the moon.

Months of constant sunshine.

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

On Earth, the Sun passes over from east to west, starting and ending the day with its movement. In summer, the Sun crosses higher in the daytime sky, lengthening the days. For those who live near the North Pole, above the Arctic Circle, summer brings the “midnight sun”. This happens when the Earth’s north pole is tilted toward the Sun, causing some places to have months when the Sun never sets. Inuit artist Jonasie Faber (b.1944) creates sculptures and jewelry, like this pendant titled Midnight Sun (2005), inspired by his Inuit heritage. The Inuit, indigenous peoples of the arctic lands of what is now Canada, Alaska and Greenland, experience various phenomena caused by the Sun because they live so far north, such as the midnight sun and the aurora.

The sun is shining on all of us.

The sunburst logo symbolizes the Smithsonian’s dedication to enlightening 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 glance at the Smithsonian Museums today, online or in person, will reveal the extent of the influence the sun has had on artists in all mediums.

We can all find inspiration in the Sun. Watch the shadows cast by sunlight through the trees, feel the warmth of a ray of sunshine through a window, or gaze safely at the sun through one of our telescopes at the Phoebe Waterman Haas Observatory. What does the Sun inspire you to create?

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