For the thinkers of the Enlightenment, he represented rational thinking. Artists continued to put him in their paintings -- but in code. "In the 18th century, if you see a rainbow or a prism or a comet in a painting, they're symbols of Newton," Feingold says. "There's no reason to show him."
Then, in the 19th century, "there was a change of attitude," says Anthony Grafton, a Princeton University historian, as romanticism developed and aimed to dethrone cold reason. "They blamed Newton for taking the spirit out of the world -- reducing everything to the measured and quantifiable and demonstrable." Although poets including Alexander Pope had been his champions, Keats, Coleridge and Blake attacked him.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday April 26, 2005 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 32 words Type of Material: Correction
Newton exhibit -- An article in Saturday's Calendar section on a Huntington Library exhibition on Isaac Newton said Halley's comet appeared over England circa 1665. In fact, it was the Hevelius comet.
The 20th century, for its part, "largely treated Newton very unfairly," Grafton says. "You often read statements that we no longer live in a Newtonian universe, since Einstein." But he notes that only in the case of very small, very large or very rapidly moving objects do Newton's theories break down. "If you send a rocket to the moon, for instance, Newton does most of what you need."
In New York, the Huntington exhibition received largely admiring reviews. Some observers, however, commented that Newton was a more complex, perhaps even tragic, character than Feingold makes him out to be.
Gleick, Newton's recent biographer, described the show in the online magazine Slate as "grand" and "impressive" but incomplete: "We know about Newton's pathological aloneness, his brush with madness, his obsession with alchemy and theological heresies -- none of which is so much as hinted at in this exhibition, let alone explored."
Reached by phone, Gleick says he found the show a bit old-fashioned in the way it treats its subject as a hero. And it overlooks an important context, he says.
"Newton was, as the exhibit shows him to be, the inventor of the modern world, in ways that we're unconscious of. We see the world through Newton's eyes. But Newton didn't see the world that way. His world was dark and medieval. And he spent much of his life working on things we consider more or less nutty."
Feingold acknowledges that Newton could be difficult.
"He had the conviction that he was chosen -- that he brought the Truth, and his rivals chose to ignore it." (The current edition of the show, he adds, has room to mention alchemy as well as Newton's attempts to rewrite biblical history.)
But Feingold wants to defend the man from charges of excessive weirdness. He points out, for instance, that alchemy was a branch of chemistry in those days, albeit an experimental one.
"In the history of culture, there are only a few individuals who were able to accomplish what Newton did," Feingold says. "Darwin, Einstein -- the list is very small. It's difficult for us mortals to get into the mind of a genius. They obviously obey different rules than we do."
'All Was Light: Isaac Newton's Revolutions'
Where: Huntington Library, 1151 Oxford Road, San Marino
When: Noon to 4:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 10:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays
Ends: June 12 (Part II runs
July 23 through Jan. 1)
Price: $6 to $15; under 5, free
Contact: (626) 405-2100 or www.huntington.org