Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
August 13, 2018
Omar W. Nasim Observing by Hand: Sketching the Nebulae in the Nineteenth Century Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2014. 296 pp.; 85 color ills. Cloth $45.00 (9780226084374)

Even readers unfamiliar with scholarship on the history of astronomy will quickly recognize Omar W. Nasim’s rich contributions to the field. Observing by Hands: Sketching the Nebulae in the Nineteenth Century convincingly articulates how pencil and paper paralleled the telescope as tools for astronomical observation. That astronomers’ routine paperwork has remained obscure to historians should come as no surprise. Private, unpublished notebooks often appear unintelligible, riddled with seemingly idiosyncratic information. Nasim masterfully proves this to be a misconception. The seemingly most monotonous behaviors necessitated by observational programs can yield, as Nasim shows, important information about conceptions of knowledge production and philosophies of mind.

Put another way, this text argues for the centrality of drawings and drawing procedures in nineteenth-century, predominantly British, astronomical systems of seeing and knowledge production. At this historical moment, nebulae—interstellar clouds of gas or dust—posed a huge observational and representational challenge to astronomers. In addition to the fact that many astronomical objects emit only faint visible light, observation was complicated by the Earth’s rotation and atmosphere. Nonetheless, observational programs dedicated to nebular research persisted. As examples of this, Nasim looks to the drawing regimens found in private notebooks produced between 1820–90 by and/or under the supervision of Sir John Herschel, William Parsons, the third Earl of Rosse, William Lassell, Ebenezer Porter Mason, Ernst Wilhelm Leberecht Tempel, and George Phillips Bond. In the absence of an accepted protocol for the observation and recording of nebulae, the burden to systemize record keeping fell upon specific projects. The material vestiges of such systems, Nasim claims, exemplify a duty that exceeded mere record; the act of drawing, as a negotiation between eye, mind, and hand, enabled “familiarization” with the unfamiliar, seemingly indiscernible objects in the night sky. As Nasim notes, in a discipline that depended upon illustration, the ramifications for knowledge production should not be understated. The material techniques of drawing deployed by draftsmen determined the observational program and representational strategies and, as a result, what could be “communicable.” He writes: “A blank sheet of paper, when understood as part of a procedure of observation, was rarely treated as a mere tabula rasa. For one thing, all that had come before it informed an apparently empty page; and paper was often prepared to receive and secure an appearance. Such devices as grids, lines, dots, and triangles were part of an explicit attempt to ‘fix’ phenomena” (11).

Observing by Hand begins and concludes with two episodes from the life of John Herschel. Nasim acknowledges Herschel’s admonition that his observational notebooks contain only nonsense and that there are inconsistencies in his two representations of the nebula in Orion. These anecdotes, rather than casting doubt on the need to take seriously observational notebooks and the visualization strategies they foster, foreground the significance of their analysis; by expanding what media count within historical discussions, this scholarship communicates how particular technical procedures correspond to visual effects found in publications of astronomical images. Indeed, Nasim justly shows how daily working methods evince nineteenth-century understandings of the operations of the mind and scientific knowing. 

The narrative begins with a prologue that charts the history of nebular research and questions of nebular resolvability for the nonspecialist. Chapter 1, “Consolidation and Coordination: Lorde Rosse and His Assistants,” outlines the various visualization strategies deployed to depict two nebulae that range from their first appearance in private notebooks to collective ledgers and finally, published prints. The transformation from note to published image demanded a standardized method to synthesize the data collected by multiple assistants into a cohesive visual representation.

The next chapter, “Use and Reception: Biography of Two Images,” builds on the first by tracing the way two images of the spiral M51 group produced under the supervision of Rosse were recycled and integrated into a variety of scientific texts and artistic contexts, notably Vincent van Gogh’s Starry Night. Chapter 3, “Conception and Perception: E. P. Mason and Sir John F. W. Herschel,” shifts the focus away from portraits of nebulae to the descriptive maps pursued by Herschel and Mason. The working methods in these cases depended upon a “skeleton” or fixed geometric points that served as the groundwork for smudged impressions. Rather than reflect only what is perceptible by eye, Nasim exemplifies how this drawing regime took into account the fact that drawing requires cooperation between hand, eye, and mind. Such working procedures acquired even more significance when they substantiated Herschel’s particular philosophy of mind. The book’s final chapter, “Skill and Instrumentation: William Lassell and Wilhelm Tempel,” begins by examining how an equatorially mounted telescope lengthened the amount of time observer-draftsmen like Lassell could spend viewing an object; it concludes by focusing on Tempel’s criticism of astronomical images made by Rosse, Herschel, and Lassell. Tempel feared, as one might suspect, that the intervention of the mind provoked inaccurate representations of nebulae. He examined how certain drawing and observational procedures could undermine our tendency toward subjectivity and imprecision.

Within each context, drawing became an operation central to what Nasim refers to as “familiarization.” Familiarization, a key component of his argument, refers to the active engagement ostensibly required to draw (literally and figuratively) conclusions about nebulae, such as their structure and morphology. Readers who practice drawing might wonder whether processes of familiarization could be both advantageous and injurious as a practice that reveals as much as it conceals; habituation to particular objects surely dulls as much as it refines our understanding of them. Nasim’s work gestures toward such a reading but does not focus on it. In fact, the project exemplifies how the operating procedures conducted at observatories could not rely on a binary that strictly opposes familiarization and defamiliarization, nor the binaries of the private and public, unpublished and published, or unstable and stable.

To audiences interested in theories of representation, drawing practices, and knowledge production, this text serves as an outstanding model. It is a welcome addition to the rich body of research on “maker’s knowledge” by thinkers like Pamela Smith and what Matthew Hunter has labeled “wicked intelligence.” Nasim’s project adds new insight into the way drawing procedures were understood to structure observation. Given the promising conceptual links between Nasim’s work and art historical scholarship, readers might regret how little he delves into art historical working methods and research on drawing and scientific imaging. On page four, he claims to adopt “tried and tested techniques from art history—such as a ‘close reading’ and material analysis—to explore a series of episodes in the history of science.” This, coupled with quick references to the “period eye,” provocatively suggests future interdisciplinary dialogue that never comes; the art historian is left anxious to know more about the visual idioms that contributed to Nasim’s formulation of the astronomical “period eye.” Nonetheless, Observing by Hand is essential reading for art historians interested in drawing and science as it provides a rigorous account of archival material, convincingly connecting the drawing methods to systems of knowing.

Shana Cooperstein
PhD candidate, Department of Art History and Communication Studies, McGill University