Flammarion woodcut

A couple weeks ago, for reasons I can't remember offhand, I was trying to figure out the name of a particular piece of art. It shows a person at the edge of the world, sticking their head through the dome of the heavens to see the workings of the cosmos. I think my parents had a poster of this when I was a kid.

I think of it most often in an sf context: James Blish wrote a story once called "Surface Tension," later reprinted in his collection The Seedling Stars (and imo by far the best of that set of stories). In an introduction to the story somewhere, he wrote that the piece of art I'm talking about (which, iIrc, he hadn't seen 'til long after he wrote the story) was another representation of the same kind of thing that readers loved about "Surface Tension"--the sense of wonder in breaking through the surface of the world and seeing what lies beyond.

So anyway, I tried searching online for this artwork, but I could only try to describe it, 'cause I didn't know what it was called. I should've asked on a mailing list, but instead I gave up.

And then yesterday one of my father's books had the piece on the front cover, and inside there was another copy of it and a mention of Flammarion. A quick Google led me to Wikipedia's article on the piece, which turns out to be generally known as the Flammarion woodcut; its artist is unknown, but its first known publication was as an illustration in an 1888 meteorology book by French author and astronomer Camille Flammarion, who also wrote science fiction. And who was memorialized by Alexei Panshin in the Anthony Villiers books (hey! my review is the first search result for [Anthony Villiers]!); Star Well is located in the Flammarion Rift.

On a side note, the Wikipedia page on Flammarion himself includes a long quote from him, of which this is an excerpt:

[...If] humankind [...] knew what profound inner pleasure await those who gaze at the heavens, then France, nay, the whole of Europe, would be covered with telescopes instead of bayonets, thereby promoting universal happiness and peace.

--Camille Flammarion, 1880

Yeah, Camille, but what happens if two people want to use the same telescope at the same time? WHAT THEN? I bet they'll be wishing they had their bayonets back!

11 Responses to “Flammarion woodcut”

  1. SarahP

    I knew I’d seen it before, too. It’s the cover illustration for Daniel J. Boorstin’s The Discoverers.

  2. Ted

    I think I first saw this image in the first edition of The Science Fiction Encyclopedia, where it accompanied the theme entry “Conceptual Breakthrough.”

    (Probably the only way in which the second edition is inferior to the first is in its lack of illustrations. Maybe they’ll be restored in the third, online edition.)

  3. Jay Hartman

    Your parents definitely had a print of this piece on the wall when you were a kid! 😉

  4. Lisa Gonnella

    Wonderful! When I 1st ventured on Wiki I discovered this magnificent rendering of what all of our minds’ eye is capable of in human form. Totally intrigued & appreciated your script. I, too, was within a 2-hr. time-frame last night when I finally remembered where I came acrossed it @ least 8 mo’s ago & decided to research it this eve (1/27/08). I couldn’t get the image out of my mind. Exceptional.

    I’m on my way to find a poster print or that of the liking.


  5. yoginibj

    I had a colored poster of this print about 35 years ago, and have been searching for a replacement. I just recently discovered the name of the piece, and have only been able to find black and white renditions of it. Such a fascinating piece of art!

  6. Jed

    A quick Google suggests that the colored version that we had when I was a kid was a poster done by Roberta Weir in 1970. For more info about that and other colored versions, see Kerry Magruder’s web page “The flat-earth woodcut as visual rhetoric.”

    Unfortunately, the links from that page to the artists’ pages seem to be out of date.

  7. Sara Anne Corrigan

    Ha! I own/display this poster image, purchased in San Francisco in 1975, but until today have never been able to track down any information on who/when it was rendered in color. The Camille Flammarion connection was as far as I got.
    Roberta Weir ROCKS!
    I have a book of similar vintage, entitled
    “The Rainbow Book” (multiple authors/contributors)published by Shambala Press in 1975 for the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, that also has this image, in color, on its cover — but in a reverse direction…. curious … and no mention of Flammarion or Weir in the inside explanation of it. Very curious.
    It has “always” been known to me as “The Vision of Ezekiel” taken from the first few verses of that Old Testament text.
    Thanks SO MUCH for the missing links =)
    –Sara Anne

  8. https://me.yahoo.com/a/uk4AW5I53oaVwW8bYkEwABeJx.iilRGHQA--#58ebb

    Here is the link for the Infinity poster. http://www.garciaweirgallery.com/product/infinity/

    There is much history on the original image, seen first in “L’Atmosphere Meteorologique by Camille Flammarion, a popular science writer of the late 19th C. I made this poster in 1970 and it was widely distributed. We now sell a
    fine print of the piece at the link, thanks everyone. –Roberta Weir

  9. Jed

    Ms. Weir was kind enough to drop me a note just now to let me know that her colored Flammarion image, titled Infinity, is now available for ordering again. (The links in my comment from a couple years ago no longer work.) This is a 16″x20″ print, not the full poster-sized one that my parents had, but I’m nonetheless pleased to see it available.

    • Jed

      Update in 2022: I bought that print, and eventually got it framed, and now it hangs in my dining room. I’m very happy with it.


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