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Scientists Say Rare Weather Conditions Created Fiery Sky Seen In Edvard Munch’s ‘The Scream’

New research finally unlocks the mystery of the iconic painting’s surreal sky: an unusual sighting of ‘mother of pearl’ clouds

Edvard Munch, The Scream, 1893, oil, tempera, pastel and crayon on cardboard. Courtesy: National Gallery and Munch Museum, Oslo, Norway

Edvard Munch, The Scream, 1893, oil, tempera, pastel and crayon on cardboard. Courtesy: National Gallery and Munch Museum, Oslo, Norway

Edvard Munch, The Scream, 1893, oil, tempera, pastel and crayon on cardboard. Courtesy: National Gallery and Munch Museum, Oslo, Norway

The surreal fiery sky that forms the dramatic backdrop to Edvard Munch’s The Scream (1893–1910) has long been subject to speculation. Explanations include weather conditions brought about by the 1883 volcanic eruption of Krakatau, to suggestions that it represents a scream from nature itself. Now researchers are proposing an altogether different explanation for the Norwegian artist’s sky: a rare sighting of ‘mother-of-pearl clouds’.

Scientists at Rutgers University-New Brunswick, University of Oxford and University of London have released new research, published in the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society, that carries out colour and pattern analysis on The Scream, comparing it to photographs of cloud formations. Their findings point to ‘mother of pearl’, or nacreous clouds – which form in cold regions in the lower stratosphere (15–25 kilometres high, above tropospheric clouds) – as the basis for Munch’s glowing sky. Such clouds can be seen in southern Norway during the winter.

Munch’s The Scream exists in a variety of editions – produced between 1893 and 1910. They show a human figure clasping its face, while lit by the fiery red-yellow sky behind. Professor Alan Robock, one of the study’s co-authors, said that the patterning and colour of the works indicated a sunset view, when nacreous clouds might be seen. Munch’s own record of the sun setting and sky turning blood red with ‘flaming clouds’ and ‘swords’ was also taken into account. ‘If the observation is to be treated as real, then it is likely that the colours were influenced by an appearance of clouds. Nacreous clouds fit this description well,’ the authors write.

The study concludes: ‘Munch had ample opportunity to observe nacreous clouds and they were noted (but not depicted) in records during the period 1883–1910, during which it is believed Munch painted several versions of The Scream.’ If the researchers are correct, then The Scream is one of the earliest visual records of such clouds.

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