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The Blood-Red Sky of the Scream

By Donald W. Olson, Russell L. Doescher, and Marilynn S. Olson

The Scream (1893) by Edvar Munch (National Gallery, Oslo, Norway)
The Scream (1893) by Edvar Munch (National Gallery, Oslo, Norway)
The Scream by Norwegian artist Edvard Munch (1863-1944) has uniquely become the symbol of anxiety in our modern age. It is of interest to scientists because the lurid sky in the painting is the catalyst of the figure's anxiety. Munch's own words make it clear that the spectacular twilight in The Scream was inspired by an actual event:

 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.

Munch never forgot that sky, and during his lifetime he wrote many such accounts of this memorable evening.

Munch painted the most famous version of The Scream in 1893 as part of The Frieze of Life, a group of works derived from his personal experiences. Between 1892 and 1896 he created multiple variations of the scene. In each painting the same spectacular twilight sky appears, with figures on a road, a prominent railing, a peninsula extending into the fjord, and a few buildings representing the city of Christiania. Could these details allow us to find this precise location? Toward which compass direction is the view shown in The Scream? When did Munch walk along the road? What did Munch see in the sky?

Aware that one of Munch's prose accounts about the red sky was written on January 22, 1892, art historians judged that the original experience was an autumn sunset that occurred shortly before, in the fall of 1891. This explanation did not seem adequate to us, because Munch attached such great importance to what seemed to be a unique event.

We began by searching astronomical and meteorological records from the years just prior to January 22, 1892, looking (without success) for an impressive event, perhaps an aurora or a volcanic twilight, that could have so dramatically affected Munch. [We later learned that Alan Robock (Rutgers) had been the first to suggest that The Scream showed a volcanic sunset. But Robock identified the Awu eruption of June 7, 1892, which falls after Munch's written account.]

As we learned more about Munch, we realized that the twilight experience could have been much earlier than 1892. Many paintings created in the 1890s for The Frieze of Life were inspired by events from years before. We found support for this idea in a book by art historian Arne Eggum, who prefers the summer of 1886 as the date for Munch's walk along the mountain road.

During a stay in Nice in the winter of 1891-1892, Munch discussed art with a friend, and a conversation from that time period indeed suggests that the Scream event occurred considerably earlier: In recalling his time spent in Nice, Munch himself explicitly mentioned that 1884 was the year of the original inspirations for three of the paintings in The Frieze of Life.

The Bohemian Days of the 1880s

Munch also dated the origin of The Scream to a specific era:

You don't have to go so far in order to explain the genesis of The Frieze of Life—its explanation lies in the bohemian time itself.

Although Munch's connection to the bohemian community of artists and writers is well documented for 1884, the bohemian days of his memory can plausibly originate in the second half of the previous year, when Munch was sharing a studio in Christiania with six other young artists. It was in 1883 that Munch exhibited his paintings publicly for the first time and almost certainly attended the wildly controversial Christiania premiere of Henrik Ibsen's play, Ghosts, on October 17, 1883.

The play, which contrasted the honest, free life of the bohemian artists to the hypocritical conventionality of Norwegian society, polarized the capital. Arne Eggum notes that Munch "at the same time" painted a portrait of one of his friends in the characteristic pose of the bohemian, Osvald, in the play.

This eventful season for artists was also an eventful time for skywatchers, and we realized that science could explain the blood-red sky in The Scream—the end of 1883 and the first months of 1884 had the most spectacular twilights of the last 150 years.

Krakatoa Twilights

The volcanic island of Krakatoa erupted in a cataclysmic explosion on August 27, 1883, sending dust and gases high into the atmosphere. Magnificent fiery sunsets and sunrises resulted, first in the southern hemisphere, then near the equator, and eventually in northern latitudes, as the cloud of volcanic aerosols spread worldwide in the following months.

A report issued by the Royal Society in London devoted more than three hundred pages to "Unusual Optical Phenomena of the Atmosphere," with a section collecting the "Descriptions of the Unusual Twilight Glows in Various Parts of the World, in 1883-4."

Newspapers published hundreds of accounts from astonished observers. The effects had reached New York by November 1883:

Soon after 5 o'clock the western horizon suddenly flamed into a brilliant scarlet, which crimsoned sky and clouds. Many thought that a great fire was in progress... . The clouds gradually deepened to a bloody red hue, and a sanguinary flush was on the sea...(New York Times, November 28, 1883).

 Colored stripes and bands in the sky, like those painted in The Scream, appeared to Pennsylvania residents, who...witnessed a most beautiful and startling phenomenon in the eastern heavens... . The sky that morning was fairly aglow with crimson and golden fires, when suddenly, to their great astonishment, an immense American flag, composed of the national colors, stood out in bold relief high in the heavens, continuing in view for a considerable length of time. (Hanover Spectator, December 19, 1883).

In England, Nature published a lengthy series of reports under the heading THE REMARKABLE SUNSETS, beginning in December 1883. William Ascroft, a diligent English observer of the twilights, concluded that the "finest occurred midwinter 1883-84, when some deepened into the richest crimson, and were known as 'Blood Afterglows.' " The English poet Alfred Lord Tennyson remembered this season and later used the image:

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... .

("St. Telemachus," 1892).

But could Munch have seen the Krakatoa twilights at Christiania's high northern latitude? The Royal Society reports show that the unusual twilight glows appeared in Norway from late November 1883 through the middle of February 1884. At the end of November, astronomers at the Christiania Observatory first noticed the "very intense red glow that amazed the observers" and developed into a "red band."

Dark Lunar Eclipses

Krakatoa's optical effects have not been equalled in the last 120 years, but observations after some recent volcanic eruptions have given us an idea of what the skies must have been like in 1883-1884.

Colorful twilights of 1991-1992 and the very dark lunar eclipse on December 9-10, 1992, followed the eruption of Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines. High concentrations of volcanic aerosols increase the opacity of the Earth's atmosphere, and less light refracts into the Earth's shadow. The lunar eclipse of December 30, 1982, and the red twilights seen in that year were similarly affected by the volcano El Chichon in Mexico.

Trip To Norway

If volcanic aerosols from Krakatoa colored the skies when Munch and his friends took their walk, then this experience must have been between the end of November 1883 and the middle of February 1884, therefore near the winter solstice. Such a view of a Krakatoa sunset must have been toward the southwest.

We traveled to Oslo to find the precise location where Munch was walking when he saw the blood-red sky. Since we were interested in the location of Munch's original experience, rather than how he reworked the motif, we knew that one drawing in particular was the most important for this purpose.

Art historians agree that this sketch (called T126 p. 10 R) is the initial study for the first version of Despair, which Munch called "the first Scream." This drawing contains specific details—a cliff on the left, a road with a railing turning left and descending beyond the cliff, and, in the fjord beyond, an island with a prominent round hill. Munch's viewpoint for the drawing had a rather low elevation, not far above the water level.

All of the later painted versions, including the most famous Scream, have a much higher viewpoint, looking down to small and distant ships in the harbor below, with the city suggested on the right.

So, we were actually searching for two locations—with the lower location the more important one because the original experience occurred there. During our visit in Oslo we found both the lower and upper viewing locations on the slopes of a 465-foot hill called the Ekeberg.

The upper location is a viewpoint on a rocky ledge 420 feet above the harbor. The panorama from this spot was illustrated on dozens of postcards and lantern slides from Munch's time. Although the view toward the fjord is generally towards the west and southwest, this upper location cannot be the precise spot where Munch saw the red twilight and "leaned against the railing, dead tired." Early maps that we examined at the Oslo city museum make it clear that no road (and railing) reached this overlook. The rocky ledge can still be reached by hiking to the northwest slope of the hill, now rather overgrown by trees.

The lower viewpoint, the one employed for Munch's first sketch, is on a road that wraps around the western slope of the Ekeberg hill. Art historian Frank Høifødt (Munch Museum) helped us find a 19th-century photograph showing this road, then called the Ljabrochausséen, bordered by railings exactly like those drawn and painted by Munch. The road is only 50 feet above the water level. By studying the perspective of the cliff and the distinctive round hill on Hovedo island, we could determine Munch's position with remarkable precision, within about 10 feet. From this spot, Munch's direction of view in the drawing was toward the southwest—exactly where the Krakatoa twilights appeared in the winter of 1883-1884.

Munch's own words, along with our topographic results, provide strong evidence that these blood-red afterglows are the connection between one of the world's most famous volcanoes and one of the world's most famous paintings.

Don Olson and Russell Doescher teach in the Physics Department, and Marilynn Olson in the English Department, at Texas State University. The complete version of this article appeared in Sky & Telescope (February 2004).

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