This Day in Jewish History

1802: An Artist Enchanted by Celestial Objects Is Born

Hermann Goldschmidt was sent voyaging by King Louis-Philippe’s court to copy great artworks, and discovered his knack for spotting asteroids.

*Checco* / Francesco / Wikimedia Commons

June 17, 1802, is the birthdate of Hermann Goldschmidt, a painter and autodidact astronomer who, working with a tiny telescope in his Parisian garret, discovered 14 asteroids, a record for the time.

Hermann “Chaim” Mayer Goldschmidt was born in Frankfurt-am-Main to Mayer Salomon Goldschmidt, a prosperous merchant, and the former Hindel Cassel. Hermann was of frail constitution, and thus was educated at home. He was expected to enter the family business, and did work in the warehouse of his father’s trading company for a dozen years, while dabbling as a painter in his spare time.

It was probably in 1832, while on a business trip to Amsterdam, that Goldschmidt visited several art galleries and became so excited by what he saw that he decided to pursue art more formally. He moved to Munich in 1832, where he studied with Peter von Cornelius and Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld, members of the Nazarene movement of German Romantic painters.

Four years later Goldschmidt settled in Paris and began showing his work, paintings with historical and classical themes and names such as “Cumaean Sibyl” (1844), “View of Rome” (1849) and “Death of Romeo and Juliet” (1857).

In 1847, Goldschmidt was commissioned by the court of King Louis-Philippe I of France to travel to foreign museums and to copy portraits for exhibition at Versailles.

In the same year, Goldschmidt had his next revelation, when he walked by the Sorbonne and saw an announcement of a lecture on the subject of an upcoming lunar eclipse, to be delivered by the prominent astronomer Urbain Le Verrier, who some years earlier had discovered the planet Neptune.

Suddenly, science

The impressionable Goldschmidt attended Le Verrier’s talk, and so taken was he that he was now stimulated to take up the practice of astronomy. According to an article about him that ran in the London Gentleman’s Magazine the year after his death, Goldschmidt “was about this time suffering much from depression of spirits.” Hearing Le Verrier’s “explanation of the phenomena of eclipses aroused in his breast an enthusiastic admiration for astronomy, and he resolved henceforth to devote himself avec amour to the study of science, of which he had hitherto possessed but vague notions.”

With the proceeds of the sale of a portrait he had painted of Galileo, Goldschmidt bought himself a simple telescope, two inches in diameter — he later called it the happiest event of his life — and began searching the night skies from his sixth-floor garret above the Café Procope, in the Latin Quarter.

Over the next few years, he steadily upgraded his telescopes, but he continued working under primitive conditions and never received an official appointment to an observatory.

What he did possess was an acute eye for tiny, illuminated celestial objects. Beginning with what he identified in 1852 as a planet that was given the name Lutetia — today it is recognized as an asteroid — he went on to discover 13 asteroids over the next nine years, setting a record.

The only significant error that Goldschmidt is known to have made was his announcement in 1861 that he had found a ninth moon revolving around Saturn, which he named Chiron. In fact, Chiron was later identified as a comet, although an actual ninth moon to Saturn was discovered in 1898.

In recognition of his work, from 1862 Goldschmidt received an annual stipend from the government. He also received a number of other honors late in life, including France’s cross of the Legion of Honor, in 1857, and the Gold Medal from London’s Royal Astronomical Society, in 1861.

Understandably, Goldschmidt’s eyesight began to fail him toward the end of his life, at which point he began devoting himself to writing about theoretical aspects of astronomy, including an essay called “The Physical Constitution of the Sun and the Origin of Solar Spots.”

Goldschmidt married Adeladie Pierrette Moreau in 1861 and they had two children. Hermann Goldschmidt died in 1866, probably on August 30 (the date given by the Biographical Encyclopedia of Astronomers), although at least three other dates that year can be found for his death.