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Geek Trivia: Stars of the (art)show

What famous impressionistic painting's exact time and date of creation did astronomy help pinpoint?


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An article in the February 2004 edition of Sky & Telescope magazine described how a Southwest Texas State University physics and astronomy professor and a few of his art-minded colleagues used equal parts history, cartography, and physics—as well as the most infamous volcanic eruption of the nineteenth century—to determine the exact place depicted in Edvard Munch's famous painting, The Scream.

Professor Donald Olson led an expedition of sorts to determine exactly where and, to a certain degree, when the Norwegian artist found inspiration to create the most famous version of his expressionist masterpiece. Munch actually painted several variations of The Scream, and the best-known edition appeared as part of his The Frieze of Life series.

Art historians have long debated whether The Frieze of Life version of The Scream resulted from a sudden moment of inspiration near the time Munch painted the piece or if the artist drew from earlier experiences in his life for his most famous work, as he did with many of the selections in the series. Olson and his associates set out to solve this riddle, and they used science, rather than aesthetic criticism, to back up their claims.

The Indonesian volcano Krakatau (also known as Krakatoa) suffered the greatest eruption in a series of cataclysmic volcanic outbreaks on Aug. 27, 1883, throwing thousands of tons of ash and debris into the atmosphere, altering visible sunlight levels and even climate conditions across the globe. In Oslo, Norway, the fallout from Krakatau refracted the light from the setting sun, creating spectacular blood-red sunsets even months after the initial eruption.

Based on historical accounts of Krakatau's impact on Oslo, Munch's own journals, and good old-fashioned ground-level observation, Olson and friends were able to find the exact spot on the exact road in Oslo that likely inspired Munch in late 1883 or early 1884 to paint his 1893 version of The Scream.

And if you think that's impressive, consider this: Last year, this same group of astronomers was able to determine the exact date and time of a famous impressionistic painting's creation, thanks to the light of the moon.

WHAT FAMOUS IMPRESSIONISTIC PAINTING'S EXACT TIME AND DATE OF CREATION DID ASTRONOMY HELP PINPOINT?

What famous impressionistic painting's exact time and date of creation did a deductive feat of astronomy help pinpoint—thanks in no small part to the moon?

The name says it all: Vincent van Gogh painted Moonrise (otherwise known as Rising Moon: Haycocks) on the evening of July 13, 1889, representing a scene that occurred at precisely 9:08 P.M., local time.

Van Gogh left several clues that helped Professor Donald Olson and his colleagues from Southwest Texas State University piece together the time and place that the impressionist master completed Moonrise, but it was the position of the moon in the painting that helped determine exactly which chronological moment Van Gogh captured on canvas.

It's a well-established biographical fact that Van Gogh painted from direct observation—not memory—so Moonrise had to represent an actual scene, rather than an amalgamated recollection of details. That meant if Olson could determine the geographic vantage point from which Van Gogh observed the moonrise scene, lunar astronomy should determine precisely when the moon appeared at its depicted position in the painting.

According to letters, Van Gogh painted Moonrise near a monastery in Saint-Remy-de-Provence in southern France, so locating the vantage point of the painting was literally a matter of wandering the French countryside in that region until Olson encountered a scene that matched the topography of the painting. The outcropped ridge in the upper right of the painting not only gave away the location, but it also served as a tool in measuring the position of the moon.

All Olson had to do was calculate when the moon could have appeared in a position that the ridge would obscure. He compared this lunar table to Van Gogh's letters, which indicated he painted Moonrise in the summer months of 1889.

This narrowed the possible lunar window to one exact moment in time, converting Van Gogh's impressionistic painting into a de facto snapshot of nineteenth-century France. Not a bad day's work for art, science, or Geek Trivia.

The Quibble of the Week
If you uncover a questionable fact or debatable aspect of this week's Geek Trivia, just post it in the discussion area of the article. Every week, yours truly will choose the best post from the assembled masses and discuss it in the next edition of Geek Trivia.

In the Feb. 25 edition of Geek Trivia, "Playing the name game," reader T10p_mwj quibbled with my description of the use of the machine gun in World War I.

"I have a small quibble about the line: 'During the first "Great War," the widespread adoption of the machine gun... ' While not necessarily essential to your article, this line could be heavily debated.

"A very good book, The Social History of the Machine Gun by John Ellis, describes how the machine gun was almost completely ignored by British, French, and American troops. The Germans were the first to adopt the technology, yet even when faced with large casualties, the British generals refused to accept the role of the machine gun in modern warfare."

You're absolutely right, dear reader. I should have stated, "the widespread adoption of the machine gun by the Germans." You get extra points for recommending an actual book as your reference source. Keep up the capable quibbling!

About Jay Garmon

Jay Garmon has a vast and terrifying knowledge of all things obscure, obtuse, and irrelevant. One day, he hopes to write science fiction, but for now he'll settle for something stranger — amusing and abusing IT pros. Read his full profile. You can a...

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