Art History

The Skies in "The Scream" Might Be Based on This Strange Weather Pattern

You don't have to know a lot about art history to recognize "The Scream" — it's the one with the wavy-looking person holding both hands to its face, mouth agape in anguish. The shape of the person is just an artistic representation, of course, but the spooky skies driving the subject of the painting to despair might be based on a real meteorological event. It's more than possible; it's likely, according to a new report published in the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society.

"The Scream"

Cloudy Visions

It's no exaggeration to say "The Scream" ranks up there with the "Mona Lisa" or Michelangelo's "David" as one of the most universally recognized pieces of fine art in the world. But what really makes the piece special is the depths of emotion that it conveys. It isn't clear from looking what is causing the main figure such distress, but Edvard Munch's inscription on the frame of the original 1893 painting suggests that, abstract as it may be, it was also based at least in part on true events:

I was walking along the road with two friends

—the sun was setting

—I felt a wave of sadness—

—the Sky suddenly turned blood-red

I stopped, leaned against the fence

tired to death—looked out over

the flaming clouds like blood and swords

—the blue-black fjord and city—

—My friends walked on—I stood

there quaking with angst—and I

felt as though a vast, endless

scream passed through nature.

It's an evocative question, and it's fueled a century or so of speculation about what, exactly, "The Scream" depicts. Some theories state that the blood-red imagery is merely a metaphor for Munch's feelings at the time. The boardwalk depicted in the painting would have led Munch to the mental asylum where his sister had been admitted, and "The Scream" may refer to both the despair he felt for his sister and the fear he felt that he would face the same fate. At the same time, the specific mention of the clouds lends something to the idea that Munch really did witness something that disturbed him (while he was already in a rather disturbed state of mind).

An Opalescent Explanation

According to the team of meteorologists made up of Fred Prata from the University of Oxford, Alan Robock of Rutgers, and historian Richard Hamblyn of Birkbeck, the background of Munch's resembles nothing so much as nacreous clouds, also known as mother-of-pearl clouds. These rare formations were once seen only at the uppermost latitudes (although human impact has caused them to appear more frequently and closer to the equator in recent years). They're long, wavy, and fill the sky with light in many strange colors. In other words, they look very much like the bright-red and gunmetal-blue background in the painting.

Comparison of the sky in "The Scream" to nacreous clouds.

It's not just a matter of passing resemblance, either. Although rare, the clouds form with some regularity in Oslo, where Munch lived at the time. As evidence in the paper, Prata submits photos he himself took of the nacreous clouds hovering low in the sky over southern Oslo. Frankly, they're practically a dead-ringer for the clouds in Munch's painting. There's just one thing that's missing: Munch's clouds aren't at all iridescent: a key feature of the strange cloud formation.

A Lava-ly View

Let's be clear: At this point, we can't say for sure that nacreous clouds were really the inspiration for the painting. Another theory, one that goes back further than this newer idea, says that the blood-red sky Munch saw was the result of a volcanic sunset — perhaps even one of the many caused by Krakatoa. When the massive volcano exploded in the South Pacific in 1883, it caused a shift in weather patterns all over the world, including causing roughly a year or two of vividly colorful sunsets as far away as northern Europe. The only problem with the Krakatoa theory is that those sunsets would have been long since finished by the time Munch created his paintings. Plus, the Edvard Munch of 1883 was not nearly the anguished soul he would be some eight years later.

Of course, that's not exactly a nail in the coffin for the volcano hypothesis, either. There's no reason Munch couldn't have been referencing a particularly vivid sunset he saw back in the days of Krakatoa. There were also other volcanic candidates, like Awu in 1893, that might have painted the sky red over Europe. Still, there's the uncanny resemblance the painting bears to iridescent mother-of-pearl clouds. At the end of the day, we can probably say a few things for certain: Edvard Munch probably did see volcanic sunsets in his day, and he probably saw nacreous clouds as well. He also probably experienced many of these sights through an emotionally charged lens. Is "The Scream" a painting of nacreous clouds? We'll never know for sure, but there's a good chance they at least influenced his dark vision.

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The history of art is the history of humanity. Ross King's "The Judgment of Paris" (free if you're trying Audible for the first time) describes how the artistic movement made its way to the rest of Europe. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase through that link, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Art History Made Fascinating

Written by Reuben Westmaas August 17, 2018

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