(Possibly) The most important painting of a planetary transit ever

With all this talk today about the transit of Venus, I  would be remiss if I did not highlight one of my favorite paintings: Giacomo Balla’s Mercurio passa davanti il Sole, 1914. In his paintings and preparatory sketches, Balla paid tribute to the transit of Mercury, which occurred on November 17, 1914 and which he, as an amateur astronomer, observed with his telescope. These works reflect not only his interest in cosmogonical themes but also a move towards a more abstract style. In this work, the telescope appears as the central point of the composition while the sun and planet are seen in the upper left as observed through smoked glass and modified atmosphere. As Donald Kuspit notes herein “… science and art find common ground in abstraction.” Since the next transit of Mercury will not occur until 2016, I present in varied versions Mercury passing in front of the Sun as viewed through a telescope.

FONDAZIONE PEGGY GUGGENHEIM
Mercury Passing Before the Sun
(Mercurio transita davanti al sole), 1914
Tempera on paper lined with canvas, 120 x 100 cm
Gianni Mattioli Collection
Long-term loan to the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, Venice
© Giacomo Balla, by SIAE 2008

 

 

CENTRE POMPIDOU
Mercurio transita davanti al sole, 1914
50,5 x 61 cm

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

MUMOK
Mercury passes the sun, seen through a telescope
Tempera on canvas (1914) 138 x 99 cm
Sammlung MUMOK
© VBK Wien, 2010
Courtesy of MUMOK Wien
Museum Moderner Kunst, Vienna, Austria

 

 

 

 

 

PHILADELPHIA MUSEUM OF ART
Mercurio che passa davanti al sole (Mercury Passing before the Sun), 1914
Opaque watercolor over graphite on textured wove paper adhered to canvas
Sheet: 25 1/2 x 19 7/8 inches (64.8 x 50.5 cm)
© Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / SIAE, Rome
Gift of Sylvia and Joseph Slifka, 2004

 

 

 

 

MoMA
Mercury Passing in Front of the Sun, 1914
Pencil and gouache on paper, 42.1 x 30 cm
Bequests of Helen Acheson, and Eve Clendenin, gift of A.E. Gallatin (by exchange) and gift of Constance B. Cartwright.
© 2012 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / SIAE, Rome

 

 

 

Mercurio che passa davanti al sole (mercury Passing in Front of the Sun), study c. 1914
Pencil on Paper
Private Collection
Reproduced in Balla: The Furturist, Rizzoli, 1987

 

 

 

 

 

Mercurio che passa davanti al sole (mercury Passing in Front of the Sun), study c. 1914
Pencil on paper, 34.5 x 27 cm.
Provenance: Casa Balla
Reproduced in Balla: The Furturist, Rizzoli, 1987

 

 

 

 

 

post scriptum:

“A phenomenon which used to be of more scientific interest than it is now will occur this evening, the transit of Mercury.”
– The Argus (Melbourne, Vic. : 1848 – 1956) November 7, 1914, page 14

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