There are so many amazing things to gaze upon when we look up to the skies. To explore the depths of space, astronomers use telescopes and a variety of other instruments. These instruments have revealed the early life of the universe, the violent deaths of stars, and a multitude of planets. But even before these tools enabled us to peer deeper, communities around the globe and throughout much of time have looked to the skies with curiosity and wonder. The sky continues to be a source of inspiration for many, and one star has continuously shone brighter than others: the Sun.

Humans have been fascinated by the Sun for millennia. It touches every aspect of our lives in many different ways across time and space—a relationship we see not just 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. Explore how artists express and depict the Sun in works throughout the Smithsonian’s collections.

The whole solar system in a quilt.

Ellen Harding Baker, Solar System, 1876, wool 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 gain a more accurate view of the sky through a telescope. She likely visited the original Dearborn Observatory and observed sunspots and the Great Comet of 1882. Coggia’s comet, a non-periodic comet that passed over the plains of the Midwest in 1874, would have also caught Baker’s attention. Combining her own observations of the sky with textbook drawings, Baker crafted her Solar System wool quilt. After seven years of stitching, she used the quilt as a teaching tool in her astronomy lectures. At a time when women were only beginning to be permitted access to astronomy in the United States, Baker found a way to combine women’s roles in teaching, 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 eastern coast of the United States were treated to a rare sight—a total solar eclipse. For three and a half minutes, the Moon covered the Sun. Only the light from the Sun’s outermost layers of atmosphere remained visible. It’s unknown if artist Alma Woodsey Thomas (1891 – 1978) witnessed this solar eclipse, but she likely was inspired by the moment when she painted The Eclipse (1970). The asymmetrical view expressed in her artwork gives the impression of movement and of the fleeting nature of an eclipse, while the changing tone alludes to the ethereal light emanating out from the Sun. Thomas was an artist known for capturing daily life through abstracted snapshots of moments in her signature style of color blocks. The Eclipse is one of fifteen paintings in her series of “Space Paintings,” 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 overhead from east to west, starting and ending the day with its movement. In the summer, the Sun traverses higher in the daytime sky, making days longer. For those living close to the North Pole, above the Arctic Circle, summer brings the “midnight sun.” This occurs when the north pole of the Earth is tilted towards the Sun, in some places causing months where the Sun never sets. Inuit artist Jonasie Faber (b. 1944) creates sculptures and jewelry, such as this pendant titled Midnight sun (2005), inspired by his Inuit heritage. The Inuit, Indigenous peoples to Arctic lands in what is now Canada, Alaska, and Greenland, experience different phenomena caused by the Sun because they live so far north, such as the midnight Sun and aurora.

The Sun shines on us all.

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 diffusion of knowledge….” A look through Smithsonian museums today, online or in person, will reveal the breadth of influence the Sun has had on artists in every medium.

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

Related Topics Art Astronomy Sun Behind the scenes
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