By Richard Stenger
Using old-fashioned detective work and modern astronomical tools, researchers said they have solved one of the most intriguing mysteries in art history, the moment that Vincent van Gogh immortalized in his painting ”Moonrise.”
The Dutch artist created the masterpiece the night of July 13, 1889, while watching a nearly full moon rise over a hill exactly at 9:08 p.m. local time, according to astronomer Donald Olson and colleagues.
At that moment, “the scene in front of van Gogh looked almost exactly like that painting,” the Southwest Texas State University physics professor said.
Olson and fellow Southwest professors Marilynn Olson, his wife, and Russell Doescher pieced together a variety of clues: notes from the artist, lunar table calculations and personal excursions to identify and analyze the location in France depicted in the work.
Letters to van Gogh’s brother Theo narrowed the possible range to the summer months of 1889.
The work itself, painted near a monastery in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence in southern France, offered enough hints to figure out about where van Gogh set up his easel: an unusual double house beside a hill, an intersecting wall and clumps of harvested wheat.
Van Gogh was known to have painted by direct observation, not memory. And a peculiar ridge that obscures a portion of the rising moon serves as the de facto smoking gun to calculate the moment recorded in the painting.
“ There is no wiggle room at all on the time,” Olson said. “The night before and after it would not align with the cliff. We can absolutely tell which date it is.”
The research, presented in the July edition of Sky & Telescope magazine, drew high marks from some space and history buffs.
“ The van Gogh sleuthing is a delightful piece of detective work and certainly entirely reasonable as far as I can tell,” said John Briggs, an engineer and astronomical historian with the University of Chicago's Yerkes Observatory.
Stickler for detail?
Others offered more qualified praise.
“ I read about this not too long ago and found it quite fascinating,” said Ronald Brashear, the science and technology rare books curator at the Smithsonian Institution Libraries.
“ But would van Gogh adjust the moon's position for better artistic proportion or was he a stickler for detail? If the former, then there's a problem, but if it's the latter, then we can feel more confident.”
Olson, who in 2001 solved another van Gogh puzzle, determining the time depicted in “White House at Night,” said he realizes that his forensic findings are not incontrovertible.
The evidence makes “a strong case that this painting was derived, in part, from an actual observation of nature. Of course, nothing is certain in life,” he said.
Regardless, he and his sleuth troops are pressing on to crack another chronological caper. Olson offers few details about the project, other than he expects to publish the findings by 2004.
“ In a certain sense, it will be a much more significant result,” he said. “It will be ... a very surprising result about a significantly more famous painting.”