Munch’s Scream sky from Krakatoa eruption

Artists throughout history have drawn inspiration from the sea and sky, often using the stars and other heavenly bodies in their canvases in real and imagined positions to suit their artistic taste. Vincent Van Gogh’s Starry Night (see Chartroom Chatter Issue 90, May/June 1998), which shows an almost perfectly true-to-life rendering of the sky over the artist’s sanitarium outside Saint-Rémy, France, in 1889, is one example. Another example of a troubled yet famous artist being inspired by the strange beauty of the sea and sky emerged over the past year by a Texas State University physics and astronomy professor.

When the volcano at Krakatoa erupted in 1883, it set in motion a large-scale disruption of the earth’s atmosphere. The eruption was responsible for a temporary change in the earth’s climate; its tsunami surge was felt as far away as the English Channel, and there were reports of a blood-red sky in northern Europe and North America, particularly just after sunset at about 10° to 12° above the western horizon.

Another perhaps less tangible event occurred in the mind of the Norwegian painter Edvard Munch, who, apparently inspired by the red-hued twilight skies he saw on a visit to Oslo (then called Christiania), Norway, that winter, went on to paint a series of haunting expressionist paintings over the next decade, most notably, a series called The Frieze of Life, of which the now famous The Scream was part.

The painting, which features the ghastly visage of a figure clutching his face in what art critics describe pithily as an expression of existential angst, depicts a harbor scene, the sky above rendered in swirling crimson, orange and gold. Was it based in reality or a product of Munch’s artistic sensitivities?

As a result of the Krakatoa eruption, the sky above Oslo in 1883 to ’84 really was colored a deep red, according to a study by Texas State professor Dr. Donald Olson, who recently determined the exact spot in Oslo where Munch must have been standing when he was inspired to paint The Scream. He published his findings in the journal Sky & Telescope. Olson said he determined the compass direction of the painter’s view and then, on a visit to Oslo this past year, worked backwards to find the viewpoint above the harbor.

“We were able to use landmarks at the site to verify that the view over the Christianian Harbor was towards the southwest, exactly the direction in which the Krakatoa twilights appeared in the winter of 1883-1884,” Olson said in an email interview.

How did a physics/astronomy professor become interested in The Scream? “Edvard Munch painted no less than five paintings titled Starry Night. We started off working on those paintings, but as we collected art books on Munch, we kept noticing the unusual sky in The Scream,” he said.

Olson has studied other historic celestial events, including an examination of Christopher Columbus’ use of a 1504 lunar eclipse to determine longitude of the New World.

By Ocean Navigator