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An astrophysicist at Texas State University has pinpointed the exact day and time when Monet observed the sunset that became the subject of his painting “The Cliff, Étretat, Sunset.” Donald Olson, working with Texas State physicist Russell Doescher and a team of three students, used topographical measurements, planetarium software, and old-fashioned research to determine that “Monet observed this sunset on Feb. 5, 1883 at 4:53 p.m. local mean time,” Olson said in a press release. Their research is published in in the February 2014 issue of Sky & Telescope magazine.
Olson and the team traveled in 2012 to Étretat, where they discovered that previous assumptions about Monet’s position on the coast for this particular painting were incorrect. “The Texas State team found that the view matched the scene depicted in Étretat: Sunset at only one location — a spot 425 yards from the Porte d’Amont on a rocky beach under an overhanging cliff,” the release reports. They then used the software to compare our 21st-century sky with that of Monet’s day, and used letters by the artist as well as weather records and tide tables to narrow down the date and time.
Monet is not the first artist to receive what might be called the “Olson treatment”: according to a 2009 profile in Smithsonian magazine, the astrophysicist has done what he calls “forensic astronomy” work on Ansel Adams, Vincent van Gogh, and Edvard Munch (and Chaucer). Olson and his students determined the date and time of an Adams photograph, “Moon and Half Dome,” which had only been known as shot sometime in 1960. (4:14 pm on December 28, 1960, was the answer.) He explained the red sky in Munch’s “The Scream” by way of the eruption of Mount Krakatoa in 1883, which “sent so much gas and ash into the atmosphere that skies were darkened or colored worldwide for many months,” according to Smithsonian.
Naturally, some art historians have been less than thrilled about this, er, intrusion of scientific inquiry into the realm of the creative. But Olson says his work “enhances” the greatness of the artworks he studies. “You can’t ruin a painting’s mystique through technical analysis,” he told Smithsonian magazine. “It still has the same emotional impact. We are just separating the real from the unreal.”
Indeed, there is something compelling about Olson’s investigations, particularly because they focus on artists who’ve been lionized. Knowing the moment at which Monet saw the sun set or the natural phenomenon that inspired Munch, standing on that road, brings them back down to earth, reminding us that they were once real, ordinary people, rather than the mythological figures they’ve become.