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Mystery of the missing moon


MSNBC (03/20/2006)

by Alan Boyle

Texas State University physicist Don Olson has made quite a specialty of unraveling the scientific and historical questions surrounding such works of art as Edvard Munch's "Scream," Ansel Adams' "Autumn Moon" and Vincent van Gogh's "Moonrise." Along the way, he and his fellow researchers have found that the conventional wisdom about those masterpieces can sometimes be quite mistaken.

Now Olson & Co. have cracked another case, once again involving a Munch classic. The painting is titled "Girls on the Pier," but you could also call this one "The Mystery of the Missing Moon."

The whole story is in May's issue of Sky & Telescope magazine: Munch painted a scene showing three girls gazing from the railing of a pier, with a big tree and an array of houses on the far shore. A small yellow orb hangs just over one of the houses. The house is reflected in the water — but there's no reflection of the orb.

That raises a couple of questions: First, is that the sun or the moon in the sky? Second, why did the Norwegian painter leave out the orb's reflection? It somehow looks right not to have the reflection in the picture, but did Munch leave it out merely for aesthetic reasons?

Olson and fellow professor Russell Doerscher, along with student researcher Beatrice Robinson, tackled those questions by comparing the painting with the presumed setting in the Norwegian resort town of Asgardstrand.

Munch actually painted about 20 variations of the scene, but the first version is thought to date from 1899 or 1901. When the researchers visited Asgardstrand, they found an almost exact match for the setting — except for the wooden pier. That pier had been torn down, and a modern stone pier had been erected about 18 feet south of where the original stood.

Once they found the spot, they confirmed that the orb in the picture couldn't have been the sun. "The summer sunset would be way over to the north of the pier — far to the artist's right, whereas summer full moons would run low in the sky and set exactly where he shows it," Olson explained in Sky & Telescope's news release.

Some of Munch's letters from 1902 refer to the painting by the title "Summer Nights," confirming the researchers' conclusion that the girls were gazing at the setting moon on a late summer evening. "At Asgardstrand, near the summer solstice, they have what are called 'light nights,' and what that means is that there's a midnight twilight — it just doesn't get dark," Olson said.

So why is the moon's reflection missing? That question turns out to be merely a matter of optics.

"The key point is that your eye is approximately 11 feet above the water level — the reflective surface," Olson said. "Light can come directly from the moon to the observer, whose eye is above the pier, but the light that tries to come from the moon to reflect off the water is blocked by the house."

The researchers found that the above-the-water perspective explained not only the missing moon, but also subtler changes in the perspective of the roofline and chimney of the house reflected in the water.

Every time Olson and his colleagues cracks an artistic mystery, a few critics grumble that such scientific sleuthing takes the romance out of the artwork involved. As Wordsworth said, "Our meddling intellect misshapes the beauteous forms of things — we murder to dissect." But I think the exercise adds an extra dimension of intrigue to the masterworks — and nails down a little bit of art history at the same time. Just consider what Olson's past projects have revealed:

That Ansel Adams snapped his "Autumn Moon" photograph at precisely 7:03 p.m. PT on Sept. 15, 1948 — and that a little-known color version of the same scene was captured just a couple of minutes before the more famous picture was taken.

That even though Munch didn't paint "The Scream" until the 1890s, he made his first sketches of the nightmarish scene in 1884, just after Krakatoa's eruption.

That van Gogh's inspiration for "Moonrise" came from a July evening in 1889, but that he may have added moonshadows as an extra artistic touch.

If you want to see the "Girls on the Pier" for yourself, you can check them out at the New York Museum of Modern Art through May 8. Are there some other astro-artistic mysteries you'd like to see unraveled, or do we truly murder to dissect? Feel free to let me know what you think.