Russell, John: The Face of the Moon (1793-7)

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About the artist

You can be in two minds about the Moon. You may know very well that it is a globe like the Earth, with half of its surface continually illuminated by the Sun. As it orbits the Earth, this illumination become visible to us in changing proportions, resulting in the Moon's monthly cycle of phases - new moon, half moon, full moon etc. This has been understood since Galileo. All the same, it can be hard to jettison entirely the folkloric notion that the Moon, as it changes its appearance, is actually changing its shape. It literally waxes and wanes, swells and shrinks. And the new moon really is a cut-out silver sliver.

The Moon is torn between appearance and reality. What you can see usually doesn't square with what you know to be there. Except when it's full, the Moon may suddenly go out of sight. What's visible is only part of the story. So it's a good subject for a picture, you might think - and it has been the subject for one very good picture, John Russell's superb pastel drawing The Face of the Moon. Russell was as well-informed about the Moon as a late 18th-century person could be. He viewed his subject through a telescope. But his image is torn, too.

It's a close-up of a waxing gibbous moon. That is, it presents the Moon in one of its least familiar, least iconic states - not crescent, not full, not even a half-moon. It's viewed at the point when it's just beginning to turn from a half-moon to a full moon, a squat, nut shape.

Russell chose this phase because it shows up the Moon's features best, and he observes faithfully this section of the lunar landscape. The terrain, with its dimpled plains and wrinkled ridges and pocked craters, is rendered with photographic sensitivity in whites and greys. The two large, central, dark patches are the Sea of Serenity and beneath it the Sea of Tranquility (where the first Moon landing took place in 1969).

The image holds contrary responses to our satellite. The Face of the Moon has no hint of a human "face", no "man" - but, equally, for all its accuracy, it's far from being a mere map, an impassive record of the facts. It is a feeling portrayal of what Russell called "this beautiful object". A mapmaker sets down detail starkly. Russell renders the softly glowing Moon with a very gentle solidity. But he also takes a modern, scientific view. His Moon doesn't hang in our sky, shedding its mysterious light and power upon the world. It's not in a relationship to human life and destiny. It is without any divinity. It is indeed an "object", of study and curiosity, a remote physical body isolated in empty space.

The space that surrounds it may look pitch black. At least, that's how it appears from some angles and in some reproductions. In fact, looked at closely, the background of this picture emerges as a deep and uniform ultramarine blue. But "background" isn't quite the right word, of course. This blue doesn't just occupy the heavens behind the Moon. It fills in a good deal of the Moon itself. The darkened third of the Moon is quite indistinguishable from the dark sky around it. There is not a trace or glimmer of the shadowed portion. As far as the picture is concerned, this part of the Moon does not exist. And so the border, the turn, between the lit and shaded areas, the visible and the invisible, becomes the critical effect in this image.

The Moon here has two kinds of curving edge, and the picture works hard to keep them distinct. There's the right-hand edge that represents its circumference, a regular semi-circular profile, sharp against the darkness. And then there is the critical left-hand edge that represents where the Moon goes out of sight into obscuring shadow, a much trickier problem. The fade-out is rapid - rapid, but not abrupt. It conveys that the curving surface of the Moon continues unseen, rather than suggesting (say) the rim of a cup. What's more, this edge is not a regular curve. It's slightly jagged with ins and outs, as the peaks of the mountains and craters just catch the last of the light.

The disappearing act is beautifully handled. Although all you can see of this Moon is its humped, gibbous form, the way it fades persuades you that this is a globe, partly lit and partly lost. Yet the picture has a final twist. See how tightly The Face of the Moon frames its subject. And now imagine this Moon was suddenly full, a complete circle of brightness. On the left it would be cut off by the picture's edge. In other words, the subject of this picture is not the Moon as such. There's no room for it. It's one particular phase of the Moon that the artist portrays, that he places dead centre and makes the focus of this narrow image.

How easy it is to imagine an altered version of the picture, not an upright oblong but a square, with space not just for an illuminated moon-segment, but for a whole moon. Its shadowed part would be invisible but (so to speak) all within view. You could peer into the darkness and imagine the lurking missing portion - both there and not there. But this is not what John Russell shows. His picture is fitted to this particular temporary moon-shape. Perhaps he does this for strict empirical reasons, believing you should stick to the observable facts, concentrate on what you can see coming through the telescope and nothing more.

Or perhaps he still feels the pull of the old folkloric idea, that the Moon actually is as it appears to be.

  About the artist

John Russell (1745-1806) was a divided artist. The finest British pastel artist of his time, he was mainly a portraitist.

One of his sitters was William Herschel, Astronomer Royal and discoverer of Uranus, from whom he bought a telescope and became a dedicated sky-watcher.

The poor moonmaps of his time "led me to conclude I could produce a drawing in some measure corresponding to the feelings I had upon the first sight of the gibbous moon through a telescope".

The picture here is a study for (or copy after) a much larger image of the same subject, held in the Radcliffe Observatory.