Painting - Problem of Delos Constructed from a Solution by Isaac Newton (Arithmetica Universalis)

Painting - Problem of Delos Constructed from a Solution by Isaac Newton (Arithmetica Universalis)

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Two paintings in the Crockett Johnson collection concern the ancient problem of doubling the volume of a given cube, or the problem of Delos. Crockett Johnson wrote of this problem: "Plutarch mentions it, crediting as his source a now lost version of the legend written by the third century BC Alexandrian Greek astronomer Eratosthenes, who first measured the size of the Earth. Suffering from plague, Athens sent a delegation to Delos, Apollo’s birthplace, to consult its oracle. The oracle’s instruction to the Athenians, to double the size of their cubical altar stone, presented an impossible problem...."(p. 99). Hence the reference to the problem of Delos in the title of the painting.
Isaac Newton suggested a solution to the problem in his book Arithmetica Universalis, first published in 1707. His construction served as the basis of the painting. Newton’s figure, as redrawn by Crockett Johnson, begins with a base (OA), bisected at a point (B), with an equilateral triangle (OCB) constructed on one of the halves of the base. Newton then extended the sides of this triangle through one vertex. Placing a marked straightedge at one end of the base (O), he rotated the rule so that the distance between the two lines extended equaled the sides of the triangle (in the figure, DE = OB = BA = OC = BC). If these line segments are of length one, one can show that the line segment OD is of length equal to the cube root of two, as desired.
In Crockett Johnson’s painting, the line OA slants across the bottom and the line ODE is vertical on the left. The four squares drawn from the upper left corner (point E) have sides of length 1, the cube root of 2, the cube root of 4, and two. The distance DE (1) represents the edge of the side and the volume of a unit cube, while the sides of three larger squares represent the edge (the cube root of 2), the side (the square of the cube root of 2) and the volume (the cube of the cube root of two) of the doubled cube.
This oil painting on masonite is #56 in the series and dates from 1970. The work is signed: CJ70. It is inscribed on the back: PROBLEM OF DELOS (/) CONSTRUCTED FROM A SOLUTION BY (/) ISAAC NEWTON (ARITHMETICA UNIVERSALIS) (/) Crockett Johnson 1970. The painting has a wood and metal frame. For related documentation see 1979.3083.04.06. See also painting number 85 (1979.1093.55), with the references given there.
Reference: Crockett Johnson, “On the Mathematics of Geometry in My Abstract Paintings,” Leonardo 5 (1972): pp. 98–9.
Object Name
date made
Newton, Isaac
Johnson, Crockett
Physical Description
masonite (substrate material)
wood (frame material)
metal (frame material)
overall: 100 cm x 84 cm x 3.5 cm; 39 3/8 in x 33 1/16 in x 1 3/8 in
ID Number
catalog number
accession number
Credit Line
Ruth Krauss in memory of Crockett Johnson
See more items in
Medicine and Science: Mathematics
Science & Mathematics
Crockett Johnson
NMAH Board Room Entry
Exhibition Location
National Museum of American History
Data Source
National Museum of American History
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