When first exhibited at the British Institute in 1850, the Art Journal declared that 'the composition and treatment of this picture are admirable..a bright and broad light is thrown on the person and the accompaniments, which are brought forward with great force in opposition to a dark sky. This is a work of a very high degree of excellence, and the best the artist has exhibited.' A tour de force in James Sant's oeuvre, Astronomy is a masterful study of colour and contrast. With an almost Italianate chiaroscuro, the sitter is captured deep in thought, her classical beauty reminiscent of a celestial goddess from antiquity.
A student of Augustus Wall Calcott and John Varley, Sant entered the Royal Academy schools in 1840. He was extremely popular amongst the aristocracy, and among his sitters were the Prince Consort and other members of the Royal family, the Bishop of London, the Duchess of Marlborough and her family, and the children of the Prince of Wales. He undertook twenty-two portraits of the friends and relatives of the Countess of Waldegrave. Known as the Strawberry Hill collection these were shown at the French Gallery in 1861 and secured his admission as an Associate of the Royal Academy, establishing his reputation. He was appointed Principal Painter in Ordinary to the court of Queen Victoria in 1871 and continued working up until the last year of his very long life.
Upon his death in 1916, Sant was longest living Academy member since its inception in 1768, having been almost consistently represented from 1840-1904, exhibiting over two hundred works in all.