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Texas scientist links famous painting to devastating volcano


The Dallas Morning News (12/08/2003)
By Alexandria Witze

The greatest icon of modern angst may have been inspired by the greatest volcanic cataclysm ever witnessed. Norwegian artist Edvard Munch painted the blood-red skies of The Scream long after seeing a twilight tinged by the erupting Krakatau volcano, a Texas astronomer says. The anguish of the painting's central character may thus trace to a natural disaster that happened halfway around the world and a decade earlier.

Until now, art historians had seen The Scream's lurid colors as an ordinary though intensely colored sunset, or as an entirely psychological outpouring of despair.

Krakatau (also known as Krakatoa) blew up in Indonesia in 1883, violently coloring sunsets worldwide; Munch painted The Scream in 1893.

“It reinforces the idea that Munch's art is grounded in reality and not just a wild fantasy,” says Jeffery Howe, a professor of fine arts at Boston College and curator of a major Munch exhibit in 2001.

The new work comes from a research team at Texas State University in San Marcos that specializes in linking historic events and paintings to the astronomical circumstances that inspired them. Physicists Donald Olson and Russell Doescher, along with English professor Marilynn Olson, decided to tackle The Scream because of its dramatic sky. They describe their new theory in the February 2004 issue of Sky & Telescopemagazine.

“I think they're on to a winner,” says Simon Winchester, author of the recent book Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded, August 27, 1883.

Munch himself described how the painting was inspired by a brilliant sunset. In one version of a prose poem written to accompany The Scream , Munch recollected:

“I was walking along the road with two friends – then the Sun set – all at once the sky became blood red – and I felt overcome with melancholy. I stood still and leaned against the railing, dead tired – clouds like blood and tongues of fire hung above the blue-black fjord and the city. My friends went on, and I stood alone, trembling with anxiety. I felt a great, unending scream piercing through nature.”

But Munch left little hint as to when and where this life-changing experience took place. The earliest known reference to it dates to January 1892. So the Texas researchers started hunting through weather records just before that, looking for an unusual aurora or other sky event that could explain the memorable sunset.

“We were looking for something really out of the ordinary,” says Donald Olson.

But the researchers couldn't find anything. So they looked further back in time, to 10 years earlier when one of the most dramatic global events ever took place.

On Aug. 27, 1883, Krakatau exploded with unmatched ferocity. The eruption obliterated most of the island and sent huge tsunamis racing for thousands of miles across the ocean, killing nearly 40,000 people. Barometers recorded shock waves from the explosion traversing the planet seven times. And a thick pall of ash and dust rose skyward, eventually encircling the globe.

Sunlight reflecting off particles in the atmosphere tinges sunsets redder than normal; this is why smoke from wildfires can produce such spectacular sunsets. After Krakatau exploded, skywatchers began reporting crimson skies appearing ever farther north as the ash and dust spread out.

Norwegian records show that the lurid Krakatau sunsets first appeared over Oslo, then called Christiania, in late November 1883 and lasted until mid-February 1884, says Dr. Olson. But the most famous version of The Scream wasn't painted until 1894, as part of a series called The Frieze of Life. Munch would have had to have remembered and drawn on an event that happened a decade before.

That wouldn't have been much of a stretch.

“It is totally typical of Munch to paint things that happened years earlier,” Dr. Olson says.

Other paintings in The Frieze of Life date back many years, he notes. For instance, a series called Death in the Sickroom depicts the death of Munch's sister Sophie – something that happened back in 1877.

In a letter to a friend, Munch also noted that The Frieze of Life traces its roots back to the “bohemian days,” time that he spent with Christiania's other artists and writers. He had definitely become part of the bohemian community by 1884, but Dr. Olson argues the connection may have started even earlier. Munch exhibited his paintings publicly for the first time in Christiania in the summer of 1883, and other references hint that he attended the premiere of Henrik Ibsen's play Ghosts there in October 1883.

The Krakatau eruption, coming right at the beginning of Munch's bohemian days, may have had an indelible impact, Dr. Olson argues.

Other artists felt the same way. The Hudson River School painter Frederic Erwin Church, for example, painted his own series of dramatic sunsets tinged by Krakatau's dust. British artist William Ascroft created more than 500 watercolors of Krakatau skies, sometimes generating one every few minutes.

Poets, too, were inspired. In his book, Mr. Winchester writes that Alfred Tennyson was probably thinking of Krakatau when he penned these lines in St. Telemachus: “Had the fierce ashes of some fiery peak/Been hurl'd so high they ranged about the globe?/For day by day, thro' many a blood-red eve, .../The wrathful sunset glared.”

The Scream displays a similar wrath, other experts say.

“Everybody always focuses on the face ... but the sky to me just looks like a volcanic sunset, and always has,” says meteorologist Alan Robock of Rutgers University.

In Norway, Munch would have seen the blood-red sunset toward the southwest, says Dr. Olson. In May 2003, the Texas State team traveled to Oslo to try to pinpoint the road on which Munch walked with his friends that fateful evening.

For later versions of the painting, Munch used a viewpoint that looked down on the fjord near Christiania, Dr. Olson says. But his earliest sketch of what was to become The Scream incorporated a different angle, viewed from the spot where he must have had the original sunset experience.

A historical marker places that spot on a road called Valhallveien. But the marker is at a horseshoe bend in the road that didn't exist in the 19th century, Dr. Olson says.

After a little survey work, his team concluded that Munch's preliminary sketch must have been made on a road now called Mosseveien. The view of the fjord, island and city from there match the preliminary drawing. And 19th-century photographs show that the road was lined with railings like those famously depicted in The Scream.