Although Galileo revealed that the moon was not merely a smooth, featureless orb, artists continued finding symbolic meanings in our lunar neighbor.
“Artists use the moon symbolically, but the ways in which they paint it often bear little relationship to scientific discoveries,” Caroline Campbell, director of research at the National Gallery in London, said. “The moon is a very powerful way of showing the ‘other.’ Something alien and different.”
Nearly three centuries after Galileo, a Japanese woodblock artist, Taiso Yoshitoshi, created a series of prints called “One Hundred Aspects of the Moon.” At a time when Western influence was high, Yoshitoshi made a concerted effort to bring Japanese and Chinese lunar myths back into popular art.
One of his most famous pieces, “Cassia Tree Moon (Tsuki no Katsura),” depicts Wu Gang of the Han dynasty, who abused his power after becoming fluent in Taoist magic. As punishment he is sentenced for eternity to chop down the cassia trees that grow on the moon. Once removed with his giant ax, they would immediately grow back.
The full transition of the moon in the Western imagination — from light source, to a symbol, into simply an object of nature to be documented — may have been completed in the 19th century with what is perhaps the most famous depiction of the night sky.
In 1889, Vincent van Gogh admired the moon through his bedroom window at the asylum at St.-Rémy-de-Provence. “Starry Night” is almost an overwhelming dance of brush strokes, like starlight that has been smeared and animated. But as if it were the only static object in the night sky, the crescent moon rests in the upper right of the painting. While wholly unrealistic, van Gogh’s impression of the natural world manages to not only invoke a real sense of what the night sky looked like, but also how it felt to see it. This is one of the first major works of art that provides us with a sense of the night without relying on myth or religious symbols.
Earlier in the same century, the moon started to be an object for the imagination to explore.