An obscure painting by the Canadian artist Gustav Hahn (1866-1962) has played a crucial role in unravelling a literary mystery. It’s a story that blends art, poetry, science and history, and involves not only Hahn but also a great American painter from half a century earlier, Frederic Church, as well as the poet Walt Whitman.
Hahn’s painting depicts a neighbourhood in Toronto’s west end on a winter evening in 1913. At the bottom are a row of houses; above, we see the stars of the winter sky, including the constellation Orion. But the most striking element is a series of bright objects — apparently a stream of meteors — streaking across the sky. Hahn was an amateur astronomer as well as a painter, and his father, Otto Hahn, owned a valuable collection of meteorites.
It’s the depiction of the meteors that caught the attention of Donald Olson, a physicist at Texas State University. Olson, 62, is known as the world’s leading practitioner of “forensic astronomy” — examining classic works of art and literature that include depictions of, or references to, the sun, moon, stars and other celestial phenomena. Olson uses the methods of modern astronomy to determine precisely where and when a particular work of art was created. An example: Olson has analyzed Van Gogh’s Moonriseand found the exact spot in France where the painter was standing, as well as the precise time — 9:08 p.m. on July 13, 1889. He has also examined the photographs of Ansel Adams, and several astronomical references in literature, from ones in Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales to Julius Caesar’s account of his invasion of Britain.
Olson hasn’t deduced exactly where Hahn was standing when he observed the meteors, though he’s happy to entertain suggestions. The caption on the frame of the painting, which misspells Hahn’s first name, simply says: “Meteoric Display of February 9, 1913, as seen near High Park. Drawn by Gustave Hahn.” But what intrigued Olson about the painting was the rarity of the event that it seems to depict: a “meteor procession.” A meteor procession happens when a meteor grazes the Earth’s atmosphere at a low angle, breaking into fragments that partially burn up before returning to interplanetary space. Meteor processions are so rare that only four cases are known: the first in 1783, the last the one depicted in the Hahn painting.
The painting, formerly on display at the David Dunlap Observatory, is now housed in the University of Toronto Archives.
The 1913 event was seen and described by observers from the Prairies to the Atlantic coast. Clarence Chant, an astronomer at the University of Toronto, compiled eyewitness accounts; he noted that many observers were struck by “the slow, majestic motion of the bodies . . . equally remarkable was the perfect formation which they retained.” The event was “quite without parallel,” he wrote. It has come to be known as the “Canadian Fireball Procession of 1913.”
Chant’s report on the event, published in a Canadian astronomy journal, included a reproduction of the Hahn painting. That’s where Olson first saw the image. But he soon moved on to other projects, and tucked the Hahn painting away in his mental filing cabinet of noteworthy astronomical events. Then, in 2000, he stumbled upon a very similar image from a half-century earlier. It was in a catalogue for an art exhibit featuring the work of Frederic Church, of the Hudson River School of American landscape painting. The painting, called “The Meteor of 1860,” shows a tranquil riverside scene in late evening, with a bright array of meteors slicing across the sky in a gently curving horizontal path.
Enter the poet, Walt Whitman.
Olson had long been intrigued by one of Whitman’s poems, a remarkable work with the intriguing title “Year of Meteors (1859-60).” Published in his famous Leaves of Grass collection, the poem contains several references to astronomical events, including a “meteor-procession dazzling and clear shooting over our heads,” and a comet “that came unannounced out of the north flaring in heaven.” Olson had wondered: What comet? What meteors?
Although a comet was visible from North American skies in 1859, Olson says the poem surely refers to the “Great Comet” of 1860. (The poem also mentions other noteworthy events of 1860, such as the election of Abraham Lincoln, a visit from the Prince of Wales, and the arrival of the world’s largest ship, the Great Eastern, in New York Harbour.)
But the meteors were tougher. Previous scholars came up with various theories: the 1833 Leonid meteor shower; the 1858 Leonids; and an unusually bright meteor — a fireball — seen in 1859. But there was a problem with each of these guesses; either the year or the visual description was wrong.
Discovering the Frederic Church painting clinched it for Olson. “As soon as I saw that, I thought immediately that that might be what Walt Whitman was writing about,” he said in a telephone interview. But the Church painting by itself would not have been enough: It was only because he had already seen a depiction of a meteor procession — the Gustav Hahn painting — that he recognized what he was seeing. “Church’s painting looked familiar,” says Olson. “It strongly resembled the greatest meteor procession in history that I know of, the Canadian Fireball Procession of 1913.”
Has Olson shed new light on the Whitman poem? A search of newspaper accounts from 1860 indicated that thousands of people were mesmerized by the celestial display, which happened on the evening of July 20. “It fit what Whitman described,” says Olson. “It was a meteor procession with multiple fireballs, and it happened at night, and at the right time of the right year.”
Olson is publishing his analysis in the July issue of Sky & Telescope magazine, to coincide with the 150th anniversary of the 1860 meteor event.
Whitman, who was living in New York City at the time, may well have seen the meteors with his own eyes. And Frederic Church was nearby, too — Olson believes he was viewing from, or near, Catskill, N.Y., and was likely an eyewitness to the remarkable celestial event. “So we’ve got one of America’s greatest landscape artists, Frederic Church, watching the meteor; and we’ve got one of America’s greatest poets, Walt Whitman, watching the meteor from New York City.”
For Olson, there’s the satisfaction of solving yet another “forensic astronomy” mystery — one that would not have been illuminated without the catalyst provided by a nearly-forgotten Canadian painting in a Toronto archive.