A 19th-century artist's astronomical drawings are stunningly accurate. Compare them to NASA images today.

  • French artist Etienne Léopold Trouvelot sketched gorgeous illustrations of planets, star clusters, meteor showers, and eclipses in the 19th century.

  • He worked for the Harvard College observatory, using a telescope with a grid etched into the glass eyepiece and sketching his astronomical observations on grid paper.

  • Trouvelot published 15 of his sketches as pastels. They're some of the best-preserved astronomical drawings of the 19th century.

  • Some illustrations are incredibly accurate, documenting moon craters and solar flares with scientific precision. Others are more creative and abstract, projecting Trouvelot's artistic expression onto the cosmos.

  • Today, sophisticated observatories and space telescopes snap images of the same celestial phenomena that Trouvelot captured more than 150 years ago. Here's how the 19th-century drawings compare to contemporary photos.

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Etienne Léopold Trouvelot spent hours peering at planets, star clusters, and solar eruptions through a telescope with a grid etched into its glass eyepiece.

three sketches of craters on the moon

Born in France in 1827, Trouvelot is most famous for bringing gypsy moths with him to the US. The invasive insect would go on to spread across North America, devouring more than 300 species of trees and shrubs.

gypsy moth elm tree trouvelot ny public library

But Trouvelot was also an artist, and he got a job sketching astronomical observations at Harvard College's observatory. He drew what he saw through the gridded telescope.

museum attendees look at a drawing of a total solar eclipse

Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art

Over time, he turned many of those sketches into pastels and published 15 of them in The Trouvelot Astronomical Drawings Manual. This one shows sunspots.

sun spots illustration

These are dark patches of reduced temperatures that temporarily appear on the sun's surface.

More than 150 years later, photographic observatories on Earth and sophisticated telescopes in space are capturing the subjects of Trouvelot's drawings.

sunspots dark spots on the solar surface
An active region on the sun, with dark sunspots. NASA/SDO/AIA/HMI/Goddard Space Flight Center

Compared to the real thing, some of his art is shockingly accurate, like this drawing of plasma bursting from the sun's surface.

solar flare eruption illustration

NASA now has plenty of footage of flares and eruptions on the sun. Many of the explosions look just like Trouvelot's illustration.

solar flare red orange plasma erupting from the sun's surface
A solar flare, captured November 1, 2014. NASA/Solar Dynamics Observatory

In other drawings Trouvelot appears to have taken more artistic liberties, like this tribute to the aurora borealis.

aurora borealis drawing rays like sunset

In reality, those green and purple ribbons aren't usually so linear.

Aurora Borealis
The Aurora Borealis (Northern Lights) is seen over the sky near Rovaniemi in Lapland, Finland, October 7, 2018. Alexander Kuznetsov/Reuters

His depictions of the sun and moon in particular were exquisitely detailed.

moon crater illustration

He captured this 500-mile-wide region of the moon, called Mare Humorum, or Sea of Moisture, with camera-like precision.

moon crater
Mare Humorum, imaged in 1966. The Lunar and Planetary Institute

Trouvelot's illustration of Jupiter includes the planet's Great Red Spot, a raging cyclone large enough to swallow the Earth.

jupiter illustration abstract circles clouds

It looks different than today's photos, but that's probably because the Great Red Spot has been shrinking and getting more circular since astronomers began observing it about 150 years ago.

jupiter great red spot hubble

Astronomers had been peering at Saturn for centuries by the time Trouvelot sketched it.

saturn illustration

But in recent decades, spacecraft like NASA's Hubble Space Telescope have gotten closer, sharper looks.


Trouvelot's depiction of Saturn was straightforward, but his Mars was more abstract.

mars illustration abstract swirls

Perhaps he caught the planet during a dust storm, but nothing on its surface today makes such a dramatic swirl.

mars red planet with brown patches and white polar ice caps

Looking beyond our solar system, Trouvelot spotted the Orion nebula - a dense cloud of gas that constantly forms new stars, 1,500 light-years from Earth.

orion nebula illustration

NASA's Spitzer and Hubble Space Telescopes have captured Orion in three different light spectra, revealing gas layers of the stellar nursery.

orion nebula yellow red orange green purple clouds in space full of stars

This image is color-coded for different molecules. The yellow smudge at the center is home to four massive stars, which heat and ionize hydrogen and sulfur gas in the surrounding cloud of green. The red and orange represent clouds filled with carbon-rich organic molecules.

Trouvelot also turned his telescope to the Hercules constellation to capture the cosmic glow of its dense star cluster.

star cluster illustration

Hubble can zoom in much closer, though. The result is an exquisite, colorful portrait of more than 100,000 stars at the cluster's center.

messier 13 star cluster hundreds of stars bright yellow pink blue

Trouvelot captured another eerie glow here on Earth: the zodiacal light.

zodiacal light illustration

This triangular gleam appears on the horizon when dust orbiting the sun reflects its light towards the night side of Earth.

zodiacal light nighttime starry sky with yellow glow on the horizon
The zodiacal light in Skull Valley, Utah on March 1, 2021. NASA/JPL-Caltech

Trouvelot captured other celestial phenomenon that didn't require a telescope as well - like this comet that surprised the world in the summer of 1881.

comet illustration

Today, comets passing close to Earth are heavily documented by amateur and professional photographers.

comet neowise belarus

Trouvelot also sketched the paths of dozens of meteors - small space rocks that burn up in Earth's atmosphere as our planet passes through a field of space debris.

meteor shower illustration

In the drawing above, he was likely sketching the Leonids during their peak in mid-November. The shower comes from debris left in Earth's orbit by the Tempel-Tuttle comet.

That drawing resembles long-exposure images that capture the dozens, or even hundreds, of shooting stars that streak across the skies every hour during meteor showers.

Geminids meteor shower

Trouvelot also took an interest in eclipses. He sketched this partial lunar eclipse, when Earth's shadow blocked much of the sun's light from hitting the moon, in October 1874.

partial lunar eclipse illustration

With modern cameras, the shadowed region of the moon during a partial eclipse appears much darker than in Trouvelot's pastel.

partial lunar eclipse yellow moon sliver

He also drew a total solar eclipse. It depicts the sun's outer atmosphere, called the corona, shining from behind the darkened moon.

total solar eclipse illustration

The corona is only visible during a total solar eclipse. In photographs, it's more subtle.

solar eclipse dark circle with sun corona shining around edges
The sun’s corona shines from behind the moon during a total solar eclipse on August 21, 2017. NASA/Carla Thomas

Trouvelot studied the Milky Way arcing across the night sky in 1874, 1875, and 1876 for this illustration.

milky way in the sky illustration

But today's astronauts can capture a far more vibrant and breathtaking Milky Way from space.

milky way iss

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