Frederick J. Brown and the Milky Way

By 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.

FJB posed next to In Flight with Untitled (ca. 1973)Adler Planetarium

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)

Outer Space PaintingAdler Planetarium

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)

Adler Planetarium seen from the south, from rocks along 12th Street beachAdler Planetarium

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.

Frederick J Brown Notes from Adler PlanetariumAdler Planetarium

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.    

The Midnight Sky: Familiar Notes on the Stars and Planets.Adler Planetarium

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.

Star Chart of Chinese ConstellationsAdler Planetarium

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.    

An original theory or new hypothesis of the universe : founded upon the laws of nature, and solving by mathematical principles the general phænomena of the visible creation; and particularly the via lacteaAdler Planetarium

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.

The scientific papers of Sir William Herschel, knt. : including early papers hitherto unpublished; collected and edited under the direction of a joint committee of the Royal society and the Royal astronomical society, with a biographical introduction comp. mainly from unpublished material / by J.L.E. Dreyer.Adler Planetarium

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.

Atlas of astronomy : comprising in 18 plates a complete series of illustrations of the heavenly bodies drawn with the greatest care, from original and authentic documents / by Alex. Keith Johnston ; ed. by J.R. Hind.Adler Planetarium

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!

The heavens : an illustrated handbook of popular astronomy / by Amédée Guillemin ; edited by J. Norman Lockyer.Adler Planetarium

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 photographic atlas of selected regions of the Milky Way / by Edward Emerson Barnard. Edited by Edwin B. Frost and Mary R. Calvert.Adler Planetarium

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.  

Milky Way StructureAdler Planetarium

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)

Study $427 Milky WayAdler Planetarium

“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 PaintingAdler Planetarium

“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
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
Explore more
Related theme
Black History and Culture
The past, present, and future of the Black experience in the United States
View theme
Google apps