Astronomer uncovers mystery of Van Gogh painting
By Jenni Laidman
Like the song says, “We’ve got the sun in the morning and the moon at night.” But that’s not always obvious when the sun - or the moon - is painted by Vincent Van Gogh.
In fact, there’s a history of confusion about a Van Gogh painting Toledo native Donald Olson decided to study. Alternately titled “Moonrise” and “Sunset,” the mixup is understandable. That big orange ball partly hidden by a thumb of mountain ridge could easily be a sun, or a fat rising moon.
Dr. Olson, an astronomy professor at Southwest Texas State University, is no stranger to such puzzles. He’s blended art and astronomy to identify details of other Van Gogh works.
This newest bit of astronomical sleuthing allows Dr. Olson to pinpoint the time Van Gogh saw the moon - yes, it’s the moon - rise over the mountains. He’s nailed it to the evening of July 13, 1889, at 9:08, plus or minus one minute.
Toledoans may gaze at the same field Dr. Olson studied until May 18. Although the Moonrise panting is not part of the Toledo Museum of Art’s show, Van Gogh: Fields, the artist painted the same landscape many times. At least one of these paintings, Plowed Field with Mountains in the Background, is here.
In September, 1889, Van Gogh packed the Moonrise canvas with his better-known Starry Night, and shipped them to his brother, Theo, with a letter describing both. That provided Dr. Olson with one end of a timeline in which Van Gogh must have executed Moonrise. The artist’s May, 1889, arrival in Saint-Remy provided the other. That places the moonrise between May and September.
The artist is known as an accurate recorder of his surroundings, said Bob Harrison, a Montreal expert on Van Gogh.
Within minutes of Dr. Olson’s arrival in Saint-Remy, he found the view Vincent saw through the barred windows of the santarium where the artist was voluntarily committed.
For six days, the astronomer and his wife, English professor and co-researcher Marilynn Olson, measured the details of moonrise.
“ That got us down to two dates,’’ he said, May 16, 1889, or July 13, 1889. Other paintings of the same field helped Dr. Olson choose between the two. A May painting shows green wheat and red poppies. The Reaper shows this field in late June.
“ July 13 is perfect, between The Reaper of late June and the later paintings. This is the intermediate step,’’ Dr. Olson sad.
Van Gogh left few clues about when he produced his paintings.
“ Research by people from other disciplines, such as astronomer Don Olson, are therefore invaluable to our work,’’ Mr. Harrison sad.
Dr. Olson’s conclusons on this Van Gogh work will be published in the July issue of Sky & Telescope. “Dr. Olson’s math and astronomical observations are impeccable,’’ Mr. Harrison said.
But one mystery remains: The painting’s shadows. Van Gogh painted shadows pointing away from the moon. They surely couldn’t be from the sun, which, would be behind the artist at moonrise, and had probably set. Dr. Olson suggests that the rising moon creates the shadows Van Gogh includes.
Mr. Harrison arrives at a different solution. “He didn’t finish [the painting] that evening. He must have gone on the next day to finish it. Those shadows would almost surely have been from morning sun.
“ Maybe he did the sky, and finished off the next morning with the wheat. From an artistic point of view, that would make sense. You usually work down a canvas.’’