“Forensic Astronomer Solves Fine Arts Puzzles”

“Forensic Astronomer Solves Fine Arts Puzzles”

by Jennifer Drapkin and Sarah Zielinski via “Smithsonian Magazine

“In painter Edvard Munch’s Girls on the Pier, three women lean against a railing facing a body of water in which houses are reflected. A peach-colored orb appears in the sky, but, curiously, casts no reflection in the water. Is it the Moon? The Sun? Is it imaginary? Does it matter?

To Donald Olson, an astrophysicist at Texas State University, the answer to the last question is an emphatic yes. Olson solves puzzles in literature, history and art using the tools of astronomy: charts, almanacs, painstaking calculations and computer programs that map ancient skies. He is perhaps the leading practitioner of what he calls “forensic astronomy.” But computers and math can take him only so far.

For Girls on the Pier, Olson and his research partner, Texas State physicist Russell Doescher, traveled to Asgardstrand, Norway, the resort town where Munch made the painting in the summer of 1901. By mapping the area and studying old postcards, the pair determined the exact location of the original pier (which had been torn down), the heights of the houses and the spot where Munch likely stood. They then retraced the paths of the Sun and the Moon across the sky at the time Munch was there.

They concluded that the setting Sun did not appear in that section of sky at that time, but the Moon did. As for the missing reflection, it was not an artistic choice, as some art historians had proposed, but a matter of optics: from the artist’s perspective, the row of houses blocked it. . . .”

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