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Professors solve van Gogh mystery

San Antonio Express-News (07/08/2003)

By Annie Thompson

Of Vincent van Gogh’s more than 2,000 works, a single painting has been at the center of controversy for years. Not anymore.

Three professors at Southwest Texas State University have used the heavens and van Gogh’s correspondence to solve the mystery.

Art historians have long struggled to pinpoint the precise date when van Gogh painted a work known as “Moonrise: Wheatstacks.”

The painting portrays a wheat field enclosed by a stone wall in the twilight sky with an orange orb passing behind an unusual mountain range.

In the 1920s, scholars originally knew the painting as “Sunset,” but authors in the 1930s identified the work as “Moonrise.”

Disagreements have persisted until now regarding the date of this painting and whether it portrayed the sun or moon.

Astronomy Professors Donald Olson and Russell Doescher used their celestial knowledge and English Professor Marilynn Olson’s literary skills to logically find the unknown date of the painting. They published their findings in the current Sky & Telescope magazine.

“ We wanted to watch celestial objects rise behind that mountain range, and you can only do that by being there,” Donald Olson said.

During June 2002, the trio traveled to Saint-Rémy-de-Provence in southern France to find that all of the paintings’ distinct features still existed.

On May 8, 1889, van Gogh moved to the hospital housed in the Saint-Paul monastery in Saint-Rémy after a series of medical crises.

Letters written to his brother, Theo, prove the artist frequently painted the view from his window, which still exists and faces east. This identified the celestial object in “Moonrise” as one that was rising.

Although van Gogh wrote a letter describing a “Moonrise” painting as being in progress, this letter unfortunately doesn’t have a postmark or any other date reference. It did, however, help the sleuths determine that “Moonrise” in fact depicted the moon.

Van Gogh had produced nearly 150 paintings and 140 drawings by the time he was discharged from the hospital on May 16, 1890. More than a dozen of these images depict the same field portrayed in “Moonrise.”

During a six-week period the same summer, van Gogh’s health worsened and he produced almost no paintings. In dating “Moonrise,” researchers were keenly interested in whether van Gogh painted the work before or after his illness.

Using computer calculations, topographic maps, aerial photographs, weather records, measurements of azimuth, altitude, and clues from van Gogh’s letters, the dates of May 16 and July 13, 1889, were deemed the only possible days when astronomical conditions would have produced such a view.

The golden color of the wheat in the painting eliminates May 16.

In a letter dated May 1889, van Gogh writes about “very, very green wheat fields” surrounding his monastery. By mid-June, he wrote about painting “a field of wheat turning yellow ... the ears of grain baked by the sun ... with the warm tones of a bread crust.”

The solution to this long-standing mystery is July 13, 1889. And the moon was only behind the cliff as pictured for a minute. That was at 9:08 p.m. local time.

“ The precision of astronomy and the ability of computers helped us,” Doescher said. “The math is our logic system that helps us know we are right.”

Lunar phases this year mimic those of 1889, which means the view in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence on July 13 will be identical to that which van Gogh saw 114 years ago.

Prior to this project, Donald Olson, Doescher and the SWT honors astronomy class identified the celestial object in van Gogh’s “White House at Night” as Venus.

They published their findings in the April 2001 issue of Sky & Telescope.

Donald Olson also has determined that the moon made the sinking of the cruiser Indianapolis possible in the Philippine Sea, just after it had delivered the uranium core for the atomic bomb that destroyed Hiroshima.

He also dated Ansel Adams’ photograph “Moon and Half Dome” as being taken Dec. 28, 1960, at 4:14 p.m.; explained the fatal Marine Corps landing at Tarawa Atoll on Nov. 20, 1943 as the result of a “neap” tide; and identified the star in the opening of Shakespeare’s Hamlet as the supernova called Tycho’s star.