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Forensic Astronomer Tackles Three More Munch Paintings

Forensic astronomer Don Olson solves puzzles. He looks at pieces of art, passages of literature and stories from history and uses science to answer questions like: Why is the sky red in Edvard Munch’s painting The Scream? (Gas and ash from the 1883 eruption of Mount Krakatoa produced colored skies ...

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Edvard Munch’s Starry Night, 1893 (credit: The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles)




Forensic astronomer Don Olson solves puzzles. He looks at pieces of art, passages of literature and stories from history and uses science to answer questions like: Why is the sky red in Edvard Munch’s painting The Scream? (Gas and ash from the 1883 eruption of Mount Krakatoa produced colored skies worldwide.)



When I spoke to Olson last year (see “ Celestial Sleuth” from the April issue), he said he was delving into the details behind three more Munch paintings and would soon be going to Norway. The results of his studies now appear in the August issue of the Griffith Observer.



The three paintings— Starry Night, The Storm and Sunrise in Åsgårdstrand—were created in 1893, according to detailed Munch chronologies. However, just when Munch visited to Norwegian coastal town of Åsgårdstrand during that year was unknown, and some biographers questioned whether he had visited the town at all in 1893. Astronomical details in the three paintings could provide some clarity in the matter.



Olson consulted personal accounts of Munch acquaintances, contemporary newspaper articles and historical photographs. He and his colleagues visited Åsgårdstrand to make a topographical survey of the town and to check out the views from various buildings. And they created computer simulations of the sky and parts of the town during Munch’s supposed time there.



“In one of the most moving moments of our trip, we realized we were standing on the same floorboards by the same window where the artist himself had looked out to watch the rising sun, more than a century before,” Olson writes.



Munch viewed the image he painted in Starry Night (which hangs in the Getty Museum in Los Angeles) from the center of the upper floor of Åsgårdstrand’s Grand Hotel, Olson and his colleagues determined. The group of linden trees on the right side of the painting still stands today. The white line in the trees, which some had speculated was the glitter path of the moon, was a flagpole with a round ball at the top. The pole is gone, but there is a depression in the grass that marks its former base. The stars in the upper left corner of the image include the planet Jupiter and the Pleiades. And based on the position of Jupiter and local weather reports, the painting likely shows the evening twilight of August 16 or 23, 1893.



The Storm (which can be seen on the Museum of Modern Art web site) depicts a woman in white in front of a building as a storm approaches. A single star can be seen in the upper right corner. An eyewitness wrote of Munch’s creating the image the day after a sudden change in the weather during August 1893. An Oslo newspaper wrote of the strong thunderstorm, which occurred on August 19. The building is the Grand Hotel, Olson’s group found, and the star is Arcturus, which would have appeared in that spot around 9:15 P.M. on the day of the storm.



Sunrise in Åsgårdstrand (which unfortunately sits in a private collection and cannot be seen online) shows a house with a view of the fjord beyond. A rising sun casts a glitter path on the water to the left of the house. A small building below this path is a boathouse. Olson discovered that almost this exact scene could be seen from the upper floor of Soelberggården, a house near the one depicted in the painting and which was once owned by one of Munch’s friends. The trees in the image are now taller, and the house has had a dormer added, but historical photographs helped to match up the view. The sun would have appeared in the spot where Munch painted it only during the first week of April 1893, when he is known to have been in Germany, and the first five days of September. The only day when the weather matched the September dates, though, was September 3, and the sun shone at that spot in the sky at 5:30 A.M.



Munch, therefore, must have visited the coastal town for at least a three-week period in 1853, between mid-August and early September.
About Sarah Zielinski
Sarah Zielinski

Sarah Zielinski is an award-winning science writer and editor. She is a contributing writer in science for Smithsonian.com and blogs at Wild Things, which appears on Science News.

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