Science Service, Up Close: Charles Bittinger and the Worlds of Science and Art

Charles Bittinger (1879-1970), Smithsonian Institution Archives, SIA Acc. 90-105 [SIA2007-0244].
In the summer of 1946, 67-year-old Charles Bittinger left his Washington, D.C., studio and traveled to the South Pacific as part of the U.S. Navy’s Operation Crossroads. For an artist whose career had begun in the Gilded Age and who had worked alongside scientists for decades, the invitation to paint an iconic Atomic Age symbol represented an incredible opportunity. The same techniques he had used through the years to show sunlight illuminating sumptuous interiors, beautiful women preparing for the dance, and a comet streaming behind the Washington Monument, were now applied to capture the drama of a terrible weapon.

Born in Washington, D.C., on June 27, 1879, Charles had enrolled at MIT in 1898, intent on studying science, but dropped out two years later to study art in Paris. It was a glorious time to be young and to be an artist in the Latin Quarter, to summer in Italy, to fall in love. In 1904, Charles married Radcliffe College graduate and music student Edith Gay (1874-1970). For a while, the newlyweds continued their Bohemian life in France. With talent and inherited means, Charles was establishing a reputation in the art world, as his detailed, glittering interiors (such as “The Blue Room,” 1903, which is in the White House Collection, and “Bibliotheque du Dauphin, Versailles,” 1906) won critical acclaim. 

In 1907, the couple returned to the United States, living in New York City and summering in Massachusetts. The artist’s landscapes and portraits continued to win prizes and positive notices, but Charles remained fascinated with science. During World War I, he found a way to merge his interests and talents. As a member of the U.S. Navy’s Camouflage Section, he developed innovative approaches to using visual dissimulation to shroud and screen ships. Along with scientists at the U.S. Bureau of Standards, he experimented with colored filters and colored lights. He also patented several inventions during the 1920s and 1930s, such as urban rail lines designed to mitigate damage to vehicle tires and a rear-view mirror with two reflection factors.

The Bittingers moved to Washington in 1929, and around that time, Charles began working with the astronomy community to paint natural phenomena that could be only fleetingly recorded on film. One of his “portraits of the sun’s spectrums” was exhibited in November 1928 at the meeting of the Optical Society of America. His 1931 “portrait” of the element Rhenium depicted each of the thousands of different spectrum lines in a different hue. 

Mr. Charles Bittinger
In 1932, Charles participated in an eclipse expedition led by astronomer and former Science Service writer James Stokley, and attempted to paint the colors of the sun at totality. The artist played a similar role in the June 1937 U.S. Navy and National Geographic Society expedition to observe a solar eclipse from the middle of the Pacific Ocean. For that event, Bittinger prepared four canvases with the likely background color of the sky (purple, blue, blue-green, and gray) and then mixed and arranged his paints in advance so that he could work quickly in the semi-darkness of the eclipse.

In Washington, Charles and Edith lived in the Georgetown neighborhood, near Dunbarton Oaks, and Charles maintained a studio close by. They became beloved members of the local social communities that included science and art, participating in such elite organizations as the Cosmos Club and Arts Club (which Charles served as president in 1933). The couple raised money for the symphony and the arts, and, with her Garden Club friends, Edith helped to fund and create the beautiful Fern Valley at the U.S. National Arboretum

At some point, Charles met Watson Davis, perhaps at the Cosmos Club, and began a cordial relationship, for Science Service covered many of the artist’s technical projects. In 1931, Bittinger was a charter member of the Inter-Society Color Council and two years later, he spearheaded establishment of “The Colorists,” whose membership included artists and scientists interested in the “artistic, commercial, and scientific aspects of color.”

In 1934, Charles undertook an ambitious commission from the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia: three “invisible” murals depicting the life of Benjamin Franklin. Using fluorescent colors invisible to the human eye under normal circumstances, Charles created paintings that revealed the Franklin images when illuminated by ultraviolet light. 

During World War II, Charles continued his camouflage work as an officer in the U.S. Navy, but none of his past experiences (painting in Versailles and the White House, reconceptualizing the use of color) could have prepared him for what he saw in July 1946. As one of three artists onboard the U.S.S. Appalachian, he had a front row seat when nuclear weapons were tested at Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands. Bittinger’s oil paintings preserve an awesome sight, as the fireballs rose and then cooling vapors created enormous clouds. When the clouds roiled and blossomed over the ocean, and towered over the ships, the potential of their power placed humanity into perspective.

Bittinger died in December 1970, eight months after the death of his wife Edith. He left behind a bright legacy on canvas, and a model of a fascinating career bridging the worlds of art and science.

Late Stage of Baker by Charles Bittinger, 1946. Accession #: 95-129-B, Naval History and Heritage Command. A dramatic view of the collapsing cloud raining millions of gallons of radioactive water over the target fleet, throughly contaminating both the warships and the lagoon. For several hours after the explosion a fine mist rained down over the area.

The First Bomb at Bikini by Charles Bittinger, 1946. Accession #: 95-129-C, Naval History and Heritage Command. Captured at the peak of formation, this painting illustrates the classic mushroom cloud shape. The pink color of the cloud is due to the oxidation of nitrogen caused by high heat and radiation from the explosion. The rapidly cooling fireball is the cause of the red glow seen deep within the cloud. The blast wave created the massive waves and steam that engulfed the target fleet at the bottom.

Able Bomb by Charles Bittinger, 1946. Accession #: 95-129-E, Naval History and Heritage Command. The cap of the cloud separated from the stem as the reaction ended and the vapor drifted off and merged with other clouds in the sky.

Blue Room by Charles Bittinger, 1903. The painting, capturing the fireplace and east wall of the room, shows the room in color after the 1902 renovation overseen by Theodore Roosevelt. Courtesy of the White House Historical Association.


Related Resources

Record Unit 7433, Ruel P. Tolman Collection, 1909-1964, Smithsonian Institution Archives

Record Unit 7091, Science Service, Records, circa 1910-1963, Smithsonian Institution Archives

Operation Crossroads, Marshall Islands, 1946, Smithsonian Institution Archives

Mom, can we keep him? Ummm, no, The Bigger Picture, Smithsonian Institution Archives

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