In May 1883, the volcano on the tiny, uninhabited island Krakatoa, in what today is Indonesia, showed signs of activity. By summer, loud noises and glowing clouds were reported. On August 26, the volcano began to erupt, and the next day it exploded in one of the deadliest volcanic eruptions in modern history.
The effects were worldwide. People up to 3,000 miles away reported hearing the eruption. The sound “may be the loudest noise the Earth has ever made,” according to the science magazine Nautilus.
Tons of debris and gases that were thrown into the atmosphere caused spectacular sunsets that were seen for months around the globe.
The New York Times reported in its November 28, 1883, edition, “Soon after five o’clock the western horizon suddenly flamed into a brilliant scarlet...people in the streets were startled...and gathered in little groups on all the corners to gaze into the west. The clouds gradually deepened to a bloody hue, and a sanguinary flush was on the sea.” Poughkeepsie, N.Y., firefighters responded to what they thought was a massive fire that turned out to be a sunset.
Scientists have advanced the theory that Norwegian artist Edvard Munch may have sighted one of these brilliant sunsets in Oslo and that experience led to the blood-red skies in his painting, “The Scream,” and other works of art.
Munch described in his diary what he saw one evening. “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. Clouds like blood and tongues of fire hung above the blue-black fjord and the city.”
Sky & Telescope magazine reported in its February 2004 issue, “Through Munch’s journals, topographic analysis and a connection to the eruption of Krakatoa, proof now exists that the spectacular twilight seen in one of today’s most recognizable paintings was inspired by this dramatic event.” The American Physical Society published excerpts from that article on its website.
Art historian John Ravenal is the curator of an exhibit at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts (VMFA) that features works by Munch and their influence on American artist Jasper Johns. He agrees that a vivid sunset caused by the Krakatoa eruption could have inspired Munch to create several works that feature red skies.
“I am aware of the theory that Munch’s blood-red sky in those paintings reflects his actual experience of the optical effects of the volcanic explosion,” Ravenal told Science Matters. “It seems likely that he did observe these effects as they were seen around the world and widely commented on at the time in the Norwegian media, including Oslo, where he lived.”
Ravenal sees the research as an important example of art meeting science. “This kind of scientific detective work adds an interesting layer to the interpretation of the paintings. This is the process that most interests me--how artists absorb, transform and repurpose elements of the world to express both personal and universal thoughts and feelings.”
Ravenal’s VMFA show, “Jasper Johns & Edvard Munch: Love, Loss & the Cycle of Life,” runs through February 20, 2017. The exhibition includes a black-and-white lithograph of “The Scream” and two works related to “The Scream.” One is an oil-on-canvas painting titled “Despair” and the other a lithograph titled “Angst.” Both include red skies.
Ravenal began developing the exhibition while he was the contemporary arts curator at VMFA. He completed the project after becoming executive director of the deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum in Lincoln, Massachusetts, in 2015.