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What did van Gogh see, and when did he see it?


Astronomer calculates with precision a moment of celestial inspiration and pure artistic visio n

Baltimore Sun (07/13/2003)
Michael Ollove


Don Olson’s wish for today is that at twilight, all of us face southeast and observe the rising of the full moon. At that moment, Olson hopes we will collectively turn our thoughts to Vincent van Gogh.

If it were possible, Olson, a Texas astronomer, would transport all of humanity to a field in the south of France to do today’s moon-watching there. Olson is convinced that on this very day, 114 years ago, that is exactly what van Gogh, the great Dutch post-impressionist, did and exactly where he did it. Today is one of the few occasions since that long ago evening when what van Gogh saw — the alignment of the moon with the landscape — will be perfectly duplicated.

It will be as it was, Olson says, and as van Gogh, that most tortured of artists, captured it on his canvas soon afterward in a painting known as “Moonrise."

Olson, a 56-year old professor at Southwest Texas State University, believes all of this because he has proven it — or thinks he has.

In an article in this month’s Sky & Telescope magazine, Olson, his English-professor wife Marilynn and fellow physicist Russell Doescher purport to show that van Gogh’s Moonrise did not spring whole from his imagination. Instead, the authors say, the painting derived from what the night sky actually produced at one precise moment above the village of Saint-Remy, where van Gogh had gone in the spring of 1889 to recuperate from his latest collapse.

The significance of the exercise, Olson says, is “that it gives us a better appreciation of how [van Gogh] was inspired by nature. He saw it, was inspired by it, and painted it."

Olson’s enthusiasms are infectious and his style accessible, which helps explain why students clamor to get into his honors course, “Astronomy in Art, History and Literature." It is a sort of astronomical forensics class in which Olson delves into celestial events that purport to be linked to either artistic expression or historical events.

A fatally weak tide

Olson’s investigations into these kinds of astronomical riddles began almost accidentally. In 1987, a colleague from the English department asked him what he made of some celestial references in Chaucer’s “The Canterbury Tales." Olson looked into it and came up with a theory to explain an unusual tidal phenomenon described by Chaucer. While he was relating this find to his friend in a campus cafeteria, he was overheard by a history professor, who approached him with another mystery.

“ He said you ought to look into what happened at Tarawa," Olson recalls.

The reference was to the disastrous amphibious landing by America Marines on the Tarawa Atoll during World War II. The tide that day failed to come in as expected, which grounded the landing craft 600 yards from the shore. The Marines were forced to wade in waters up to their chins under ferocious Japanese machine gun fire. They suffered 2,300 casualties, a thousand of them deaths.

The question for Olson was: What happened to the tide that day?

Through a series of calculations, he discovered that the luckless Marines were the victims of a celestial alignment that happens only twice a year, when the moon is both farthest from the earth and also in a quarter phase. The combination results in an unusually weak — fatally weak at Tarawa on Nov. 20th, 1943 — tide range. “The tide just hangs there, and it stranded them on the coral reef."

Olson was energized by the discovery and soon launched himself at other celestial quandaries related to the arts and history. Many have resulted in published pieces.

He deduced that the “bright star" described in Shakespeare’s Hamlet most likely derived from a supernova that had unnerved Europeans for 16 months when the bard was eight years old.

He identified the exact time and date Ansel Adams shot his famous Yosemite photograph, Moon and Half Dome — 4:14 p.m. on December 28, 1960.

And he discerned that the reason Stonewall Jackson’s own troops had mistakenly shot him down in 1863 was that when they saw him, he was riding out of a full moon sitting on the horizon. It had silhouetted the Confederate general while also obscuring the features of his uniform. His men couldn’t tell he wasn’t a Yankee, and fired on him, depriving Robert E. Lee of his best commander two months later at Gettysburg.

Lincoln and the almanac

One of Olson’s greatest crowd pleasers concerned a famous courtroom performance by Abraham Lincoln when he defended one client in a murder case. To discredit the testimony of an eyewitness, Lincoln dramatically held up an almanac — a scene later portrayed in a Norman Rockwell painting. The witness could not have seen the killing by the light of the moon as he had claimed, Lincoln insisted, because the moon was too low on the horizon by then.

Olson proved that Lincoln was not engaging in pure histrionics. The moon had indeed been high in the sky early that evening as other witnesses testified. But Olson discovered that on that particular night the moon behaved as it does once every 19 years. “The moon proceeded from meridian to setting in an unbelievably short amount of time," Olson says. By 11 p.m., the time of the killing, the moon had nearly set and was far too low in the sky to illuminate any scene for a witness. Lincoln, whom Olson discovered had a keen interest in astronomy, knew just what he was talking about. The almanac Lincoln wielded in the courtroom was no prop. “Honest Abe was being honest," Olson says.

The moon often preoccupies Olson in his missions, and obviously, it would again, when he took on van Gogh’s Moonrise. That isn’t as self-evident as it appears. The painting dates from van Gogh’s highly productive months in Saint-Remy in the south of France where he sought solace and recovery from a months-long emotional downturn. Only months earlier, he had famously threatened his friend, the painter Paul Gauguin, with a razor and then cut off the lower half of his own left ear. At Saint-Remy, he took up residence in a hospital housed in the Saint-Paul monastery, and over the course of the next year produced nearly 150 paintings and 140 drawings, including Moonrise. But he would not find the lasting peace of mind in Saint-Remy that he had hoped. Not long after he left, van Gogh, one of the monumental figures in Western painting, would be dead at age 37 by his own hand.

Just when he painted Moonrise remained something of a mystery. The stylized, explosively colored painting features a golden full moon rising above a gentle mountain range. A single, jutting cliff bisects the moon from the right. In the foreground is a field with mounds of stacked wheat bounded in the rear by a stone fence running from nearly one end to the other.

Van Gogh didn’t date the painting, so for some time the only certainty was that he painted it between his arrival in Saint-Remy on May 8, 1889 and late September when he mailed it off to his brother Theo (along with perhaps his most renowned work, Starry Night).

Van Gogh didn’t title the painting either, which left room for there to arise the misconception that rather than a moon rising, he had painted a sun setting. The truth was only revealed nearly 50 years later upon examination of one of his letters to Theo from that summer in which he described a work “in progress of a moonrise." He described the wheat stacks and their color as “dull yellow, ochre and violet."

Only one painting fits the description.

Hanging on a cliff

Relying mainly on van Gogh’s correspondence, scholars came to believe he created Moonrise in early July, from the 6th to nearly the middle of the month. It was in that period that van Gogh suffered a complete breakdown and all but stopped work for six weeks.

Olson thought he could use astronomy to arrive at a definitive date.

What gave him the confidence was that peculiar, overhanging cliff. “That was the key," he said. “I knew this was going to be do-able because the moon is behind this distinctive landscape feature."

If he could find that cliff — if it truly existed — he knew he could calculate exactly when the moon had risen behind it as van Gogh had portrayed.

Last June, he, his wife, and Doescher — a seasoned team by then — traveled to Saint-Remy. “Within two minutes of arriving," he said, “I knew we would be able to do the analysis."

He knew because he found the cliff.

Other markers were there as well. The monastery still stands and before it the field, although it has now spawned 50-foot tall trees that obscure the view. Thrillingly for Olson and the others, they found the double-roofed house that appears on one edge of the painting (and far more prominently in other of Van Gogh’s works that summer).

They were not permitted access to van Gogh’s room — the monastery still operates as a working hospital — and they couldn’t dwell on the spot outside where they determined van Gogh must have painted Moonrise. But they didn’t need to. They made observations. They calculated altitudes and compass directions. They consulted topographic and aerial maps. They did computations.

The final puzzle

In the end, they found that on only two dates did the moon rise behind that overhang in the way van Gogh portrayed and in the span of time during which he could have painted Moonrise: May 16th and July 13th.

Weather records showed that the skies were clear over Saint-Remy on both dates. On either evening, van Gogh could have seen the same full moon pierced by that jutting cliff. How to decide?

The answer was in van Gogh’s letters and in the painting itself. Shortly after arriving in Saint-Remy, van Gogh wrote that the monastery was surrounded by “very, very green wheat fields." In contrast, by the middle of June, he noted that he was painting, “a field of wheat turning yellowthe ears of grain baked by the Sunwith the warm tone of bread crust."

The wheat featured in Moonrise is not the verdant hues of spring but the gold of summer. There was the answer. Van Gogh’s Moonrise occurred July 13th, at precisely 9:08 p.m.

It would have taken two minutes for the moon to pass behind that overhang. Whether van Gogh painted that night or the next day or even later may never be known, although Olson and his colleagues noted in their Sky & Telescope article an earlier van Gogh letter in which he said, “I never work from memory. I cannot work without a model in the matter of form, I am too afraid of departing from the possible and the true."

The media was captivated by Olson’s ingenuity in solving the puzzle of Moonrise. The art world, though, has been mixed in its reaction to this interloper into their domain.

Louis Van Tilborgh, curator of paintings at the van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, is far from floored. Even if the scene actually occurred, that does not mean van Gogh saw it or that he didn’t invent what he wanted to paint. Maybe he saw a full moon to the left of the cliff, but wanted to paint the image of the two intersecting. “He was not making a photograph," Van Tilborgh says. “He was trying to make a work of art."

Even if Van Gogh did actually see it, Van Tilborgh doesn’t see it making much difference either way. “I’m not dismissing it as something that is totally irrelevant," he said. “But no, I wouldn’t say it turns the world upside down."

Eik Kahng, curator of 18th-and 19th-century art at the Walters, was similarly unimpressed. “From an art historian’s point of view, it’s always been known that van Gogh worked from nature. Maybe this is a revelation to somebody who assumed that he wasn’t working from nature, but probably not to an art historian."

Others, though, are intrigued by what Olson has accomplished. Teio Meedendorp is a Dutch art historian who wrote the catalog entry on Moonrise for the Kroller-Muller Museum, where the painting is exhibited. He had dated the painting on July 6th, but says that now, in light of Olson’s work, he expects to change that date to July 14th or 15th. “It’s very probably the case that he saw it on that day [the 13th] and that’s probably the moment that [van Gogh] decided to paint another of these views."

He agrees that it has long been understood that nature inspired van Gogh’s work, but Meedendorp says a further example like this one is potent. “Every detail about van Gogh is worth knowing, especially since we know so much about him. You find there’s still more to know."

Whether one is captivated by what Olson has done seems to be more a matter of imagination than intellect. Olson has delivered the vision of this seminal painter standing in that field at a particular moment and observing a celestial sight that he felt compelled to express artistically. To some, that tangible image is arresting.

Ray Allen and Barry Nemett, respectively the academic dean and chairman of the painting department at the Maryland Institute College of Art, both pronounced themselves delighted by Olson’s find. “What’s interesting," says Allen, “is that he found that something was happening in the world that was as souped-up as something that was going on his head."

Paul Hayes Tucker, a leading scholar of Monet at University of Massachusetts in Boston, was also tickled by Olson’s discovery. “I think it’s marvelous," he said, “something to be hailed."

“ That van Gogh actually saw a particular lunar phenomenon and it moved him so much that he felt compelled to paint it, that to me is powerful. While we often say his relationship to nature was profound and absolutely essential, here is proof that is irrefutable and based on a unique phenomenon. I think we all would be moved by a moon like that, but he was and he felt obliged to paint it."

Science made richer

Certainly, Olson was himself moved by his discovery that van Gogh painted what he actually witnessed. He had numerous books on van Gogh on his bookshelves in San Marcos, Texas, but never before had he felt so close to the painter, almost as though there was an interaction. It is that connectedness that he finds at the end of many of his astronomical excursions into art, literature and history.

“ You’re doing mathematical calculations and taking measurements on photographs, but my life as a scientist is made richer by spending time examining the paintings of van Gogh, the writings of Chaucer, the photographs of Ansel Adams."

Every 19 years, July 13th produces the exact trajectory of the moon over Saint-Remy as Vincent van Gogh witnessed in 1889. Tonight will be one of those occasions. Appropriately enough, it comes during the year when various museums that exhibit van Gogh’s works are commemorating the 150th anniversary of his birth. When you spot the moon this evening, perhaps you, too, will feel a shiver and a connection to that doomed painter, imagining him standing in that field, his head tilted toward the heavens. If so, you can thank Don Olson.