Decades before the first spacewalk, a child looked out across the sea from the top of Donville-les-Bains’ cliffs, and imagined distant worlds far beyond our own.
The cliffs here face the setting sun. Vast, lurid sunsets are soon followed by a web of constellations, brilliant against the velvet heavens that edge down to silvered, shimmering night water. Those big Normandy night skies inspired Lucien Rudaux with a passion that never faded. He would spend a lifetime pursuing dreams of stars, planets and the endless possibilities of space.
The young astronomer
Lucien’s parents moved to the coast north of Granville in the 1880’s when he was still a child. His father was an artist of some renown who passed on skills and talent to his son.
To better understand the stars he loved, Lucien read all he could about astronomy and, age 10, built his first telescope. As a young man he headed to Paris to study commercial illustration. In 1892 at the age of 18, he joined the Société Astronomique de France and was soon in the orbit of renowned astronomer Camille Flammarion.
Determined to have his own observatory he headed to the clear skies of Donville-les-Bains and his parents generous back garden, and built one. Using its 4-inch reflector Lucien created pioneering photographs of the moon and planets as well as a photographic atlas of the Milky Way.
Early writing and books
Lucien became science writer and artist for the magazines Nature, L’Illustration and a regular contributor to Popular Science. His first book ‘How to study the stars’ was published 1912. An extraordinary success, it was translated into English.
In 1915, Larousse published “Practical Manual of Astronomy” which made astronomy accessible to the amateur and inspired a generation of young stargazers.
His next collaboration created even more of a sensation. Written by Berget Alphonse ‘Le Ciel’ ‘the sky’, also published by Larousse, was crammed with Lucien’s photographs. But what stunned readers were his illustrations. Photography of planets were then still indistinct. Lucien took his knowledge of astronomy and applied his artistic ability and imagination to produce drawings and paintings of planets as he knew they would appear from neighbouring moons.
Larousse Encyclopedia of Astronomy
More collaborations, regular articles and books followed. Lucien’s collection of technical drawings, photographs and illustrations in the Larousse Encyclopedia of Astronomy are world class and the book still appears on reading lists as a comprehensive foundation of astronomy.
On the other worlds
Lucien’s own work published in 1937 ‘Sur les autres mondes’ ‘On the other worlds’ contains some of his most famous images and is a much sought after space art classic. The book has over 400 drawings and 20 full size paintings that are startling for their drama as much as their visionary accuracy. These are the pictures that have since placed Lucien firmly in the role of ‘grandfather of modern space art’, inspiring artists such as Chesley Bonestell whose own paintings of real and imagined other worlds are said to have influenced the American space program.
Unique visions of the earth’s moon
Lucien’s acute observations of the moon resulted in astonishingly accurate imagined lunar landscapes. Other astronomers and artists assumed our moon’s surface would be a jagged landscape of sharp peaks, but he understood the surface would have been smoothed by a millennia of meteorites and extreme temperatures.
He wrote “If we reconstruct geometrically the outlines of certain lunar mountains from their observed appearance, we shall find that instead of being steep and jagged, they have quite gentle slopes and their summits are frequently flat or smoothly rounded.”
His paintings closely resemble photographs taken by Apollo astronauts decades later.
Always looking skyward, Lucien was fascinated by all the phenomena of the atmosphere and became a member of the Societe Météorologique de France in 1937. His photographs below for the Larousse Encyclopedia of Astronomy, taken in Normandy, show the Aurora Borealis near Donville and Mont Saint-Michel at twilight.
And then it got a little strange
A series of articles in the 1950’s for The American Weekly gave an outlet for Lucien’s wilder imagination. He vividly described and illustrated ideas for life on other planets, exploring notions of evolution and inventing unsettling creatures.
Lucien Rudaux’s passionate promotion of astronomy and science was recognised in 1936 when he was awarded a Chevalier in the Legion of Honour. In 2000 the International Association of Astronomical Artists (IAAA) inaugurated the Rudaux Awards for ‘celebrated masters of the genré of Space Art’. The first award was giving posthumously to Lucien.
In space, finally
Lucien Rudaux was born on 16 October 1874 and died on 15 March 1947. A 65-km-wide crater on Mars is named for him.
True genius, they say, is not just to understand ideas and processes of incredible complexity, but to also have the imagination to perceive possibilities, to be able to imagine the unknown. Lucien Rudaux was a rare genius.
Complete Larousse Encyclopedia of Astronomy 1962 (b&w)