In Oslo, just a few days ago, a study which claims to have identified the reason behind the incredibly intense sky of all four versions of Munch’s The Scream was published. The study was conducted by scholars Fred Prata, Alan Robock and Richard Hamblyn. All three renowned scientists in their own field, and constitutes the presumed full story behind one of the expressionist movement’s most famous paintings.

"The Scream". This version hangs at the National Museum of Art in Oslo. "The Scream". This version hangs at the National Museum of Art in Oslo.

In addition to its artistic value, the painting is also well known due to the two thefts that it suffered during the past two decades – one in 1994 and a second in 2004. The last theft, in particular, caused a great media outcry, as The Scream was stolen by two armed men from the museum in Oslo. It was recovered two years later with slight damage to the canvas.

Munch's The Scream is considered to be one of the most distressing paintings of Western art - and has always been interpreted as an expression of the artist's emotional state. Munch painted numerous sketches and four versions of the painting between 1893 and 1910.

The origin of the painting is documented in a written note by the Norwegian painter himself, dated 1892:

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.

The four versions of "The Scream". Photo via journals.ametsoc.org. The four versions of "The Scream". Photo via journals.ametsoc.org.

In another diary entry, Munch mentioned that he himself stated shouting too, but since nobody listened he realised that he had to scream through painting, and thus painted the clouds as if they were full of blood – the artist claims to have made the colours scream.

In short, it seems that the cry of anguish and solitude of the figure in the foreground was both a metaphor for the anxiety the author himself experienced, as well as the collective angst of the whole of humanity. Perhaps, an emblem of the existential anguish inherent in our specie. This is an interpretation that remains valid, but it is now enriched with a detail that makes the picture even more interesting from a scientific point of view.

A sunset after a volcano eruption, Chile. Photo via journals.ametsoc.org. A sunset after a volcano eruption, Chile. Photo via journals.ametsoc.org.

In 2000, one of the scientists of the same team, Robock, had traced the physical origin of the blood red elements of the canvas sky to the eruption of the Krakatau volcano of 1883, which could have caused the unusual colour of the sky, visual even thousands of miles away. Munch's paintings, however, are dated 10 years after that event and it is maybe a bit far-fetched that the eruption lies behind The Scream’s intense sky.

The new study gives another explanation: according to scientists from the Department of Atmospheric, Oceanic and Planetary Physics at the University of Oxford, a meteorological phenomenon, with the fascinating name "mother-of-pearl clouds" might lie behind the Munch sky. The phenomenon arises at very low temperatures and sometimes causes the formation of striped clouds, similar to cirrus clouds, and others of almost monochromatic blocks, with spectral colours.

Mother-of-peal clouds. Photo via journals.ametsoc.org. Mother-of-pearl clouds. Photo via journals.ametsoc.org.

After having verified some testimonies, which confirmed that the event had occurred in Oslo during the years Munch painted the versions, the scholars have done an analysis of the colours of the painting. They have compared it with more recent photos of the mother-of-pearl clouds, and this resemblance of the sky caused by the clouds in Munch’s The Scream is eerily alike.

If this is the case, it would be the first known graphic representation of the phenomenon of "mother-of-pearl clouds".

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