Frederick J. Brown and the Milky Way

Adler Planetarium

In 1977, the artist Frederick J. Brown made a large painting titled “Milky Way” in collaboration with the Adler Planetarium. This work resonates with a longstanding quest to understand our place in the Universe - a quest where artistic imagination, sensibility, and skill are by no means foreign.

Portrait of the Artist
Frederick James Brown (1945-2012) was a New York City and Arizona-based American artist. He was born in Georgia and raised in the South Side of Chicago. Brown’s work was shaped by his African-American and Native American ancestry, as well as his vast knowledge of art history. He engaged with themes such as American history and music, the urban fabric, religion, and spirituality.  (Image courtesy of the Frederick J. Brown Trust)
A Penchant for Outer Space
Brown also nurtured an interest in astronomy and space, which he expressed in works representative of his abstract expressionism such as “Galaxy I” and “Galaxy II” (1971), “Black Hole” (1974), and “Outer Space” (1973), shown here. A collaboration with an emblematic institution of Chicago would take him on yet another journey into the depths of space. (© Frederick J. Brown Trust; painting resides at the University of Lethbridge Art Gallery)
The Artist, the Planetarium, and the Galaxy
In collaboration with the Adler Planetarium in 1977, Brown started to work on a painting inspired by our galaxy (the Milky Way). By then, the concept of the Milky Way as a spiral galaxy among billions of other galaxies was well-established. As the Adler Planetarium has long demonstrated to visitors of all ages and walks of life, understanding our galaxy is part of a longstanding human endeavor to appreciate humanity’s place in the cosmos.
Stepping Out of The Galaxy
These notes were assembled by Adler Planetarium staff for Frederick Brown. They provide  insight on what the Milky Way would look like from an external viewpoint. We cannot send human beings or even machines outside our galaxy - the distances are overwhelming. Then how have people managed to unveil its structure? With the right scientific tools and techniques, to be sure, but also with a great deal of artistic imagination and skill.    
A Majestic and Intriguing Sight
This 19th-century illustration shows how the Milky Way presents itself to us (with clear skies and no light pollution) as we orbit the Sun, one of its billions of stars: as a fuzzy, whitish strip extending across the night sky. The name Milky Way originated in Ancient Greece, but this intriguing celestial feature sparked the imagination of people all over the world, including Frederick Brown.
A Pathway in the Sky
This 18th-century star map from Japan shows the constellations in the Chinese tradition. The Milky Way is clearly visible as an arc protruding to the left. In the ancient cultures of Eastern Asia, the Milky Way was regarded as a river, a road, or some other kind of pathway in the sky. In a sense, it was also the pathway to finding our place among the stars, encouraging people to wonder what that place may actually be.    
The Architecture of the Heavens
In the 17th century, telescopes confirmed that the Milky Way is formed by myriads of stars. This image represents one hypothesis put forward by Thomas Wright in 1750 to explain the distribution of stars in space and the appearance of the Milky Way in the night sky. Wright’s models combined theological speculation with spatial thinking, which he mastered as a professional architect and landscaper.
A Matter of Perspective
This is the first model of our galaxy based on systematic observations. It was presented by William Herschel in 1784. The model did not hold, but Herschel’s basic idea was correct: that fuzzy swath in the night sky is simply our galaxy seen from the inside, when looking along the plane where most of its stars are concentrated. It is all a matter of perspective.
Drawing Celestial Ghosts
This 19th-century image shows several drawings of nebulae, which encompassed a variety of faint celestial objects. Drawing the nebulae as observed through large telescopes helped set the scenes for a better understanding of their nature, and also of our own galaxy. Scientists eventually realized that some nebulae are star-forming regions, some are remnants of dying stars, and others are galaxies on their own right - the Milky Way is not alone!
A Form of Wonderful Strangeness
This illustration is based on a 1840s drawing of a nebulae known today as the Whirlpool Galaxy. The drawing clearly shows its spiral shape. The writer A. Guillemin described it as “a form of wonderful strangeness”. By the late 19th century, astronomers began to suspect that the Milky Way might have a similar shape. Looking beyond to other galaxies, picturing and studying them, proved essential to understand our own.
A Plate Full of Stars and Dust
Photographing the Milky Way as it appears to us in the night sky was also essential to unveiling its secrets. This photograph shows the Milky Way around the constellation of Taurus, with dark clouds of dust floating amidst myriads of stars. It is one of a set of photographs by Edward E. Barnard that strike a modern viewer as both meticulous scientific images and works of photographic art.  
The Galaxy Opens its Arms 
In 1951, the astronomer William Morgan, a lover of the visual arts who liked to search for patterns, presented this model to the American Astronomical Association. He received a standing ovation. The model shows the location of young stars, hydrogen clouds, and interstellar dust, revealing the long-suspected spiral structure of our galaxy. The concept of the Milky Way that inspired Brown’s work took hold with Morgan’s investigations and radio-astronomy research. (Object on loan to the Adler Planetarium from the University of Chicago)
“Milky Way”, a study  
Brown produced this study as part of the Milky Way project. For scientific insight, he relied on Adler experts and the book "The Milky Way" by Bart J. Bok and Priscilla F. Bok, two astronomers who studied the Milky Way’s structure. Brown’s study challenges us to search for patterns in a multitude of individual dots of light - just like investigators of the Milky Way have done for centuries. (© Frederick J. Brown Trust)     
“Milky Way”, the painting  
Brown’s “Milky Way” painting immerses the viewer in a scene evocative of Barnard’s photographs, while hinting at the spiral arms of our galaxy as they would been seen from the outside. It thus highlights that, in order to picture our own stellar system, we must switch between different perspectives. Brown’s “Milky Way” reminds us that imagination is key to understanding our place in the Universe.  (© Frederick J. Brown Trust)
Credits: Story

Thank you to the staff of the Adler Planetarium for their assistance in creating these images of our collection and this exhibition. The Adler also thanks The Frederick J. Brown Trust, The University of Chicago, and the University of Lethbridge Art Gallery, for their permission to create this exhibition.

Images of the works of Frederick J. Brown are copyrighted by The Frederick J. Brown Trust.

Credits: All media
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