Researchers Believe They’ve Discovered Something Pretty Cool About Monet Painting
Jan. 24, 2014 11:28am Elizabeth Kreft
Texas State University researchers believe they have pinpointed the exact moment that inspired a 131-year-old seminal work of art.
The research team used forensic astronomy to reveal new details about Oscar-Claude Monet’s experience while painting his popular Étretat: Sunset. The father of the French Impressionist movement painted the stunning seascape during a trip to the Normandy coast in 1883, but the team wanted to uncover more details about the precise moments in which the painter captured the scene.
The team published their findings in the February 2014 issue of Sky & Telescope magazine, which trace Monet’s footsteps along the coast, and use astronomical data to determine the captured moment was: February 5th, 1883 at 4:53 PM local time.
Olson’s ironic research attempts to pinpoint an exact moment – they claim 4:53 p.m. Feb 5th, 1883 – when Monet captured his famous sunset off the Coast of Normandy. Yet Impressionist artists reeled against such academic, exacting rigor.
Astrophysicist Donald Olson led the research team to the Normandy cliffs in 2012, where they determined the artists vantage point much like any other tourist might: by using postcard-size replicas of Étretat: Sunset., reports The Verge. Once they identified the location, that’s when the research kicked up a notch: they used sophisticated planetary software to determine what a 19th century sky would have looked like, focusing on the position of the moon and sun.
The prime difficulty in their research was the time of year in which they traveled; Monet documented his painting experience in letters to his future wife that show he spent weeks in February on the Normandy coast to capture the scene. But Olson’s research team traveled to France in the summer.
Still, of Monet’s series of paintings during that winter trip, Sunset is the only one that includes the low-setting sun, depicted to the right of a seaside cliff and needle-shaped rock formation. And the crescent moon and star fields allowed Olson and his team to determine the path along which the sun would have set.
Based on their calculations, the Texas researchers concluded Monet painted the work between February 3rd and 7th. After studying the letters Monet wrote during that time, as well as historical weather and tidal data, they narrowed the precise date to February 5th, 1883 at 4:53 PM local time.
Monet’s Impression, Sunrise, is usually identified as the start of the Impressionist movement. Perhaps Olson and his team can try to dissect this painting next, and get Monet to roll over in his grave twice.
In letters Monet wrote to his future wife Alice Hoschedé, the painter revealed details about his sunset project, so there are historical records to support the researchers data. Monet’s February 1883 letters describe how difficult the conditions were, with changing tides and weather, and the challenging terrain, according to a Monet Web site:
When, in true Impressionist manner, he set up his easel on the shore to observe the subject, he was making studies that he intended to take back to his studio for producing finished paintings. His hope of having a few finished canvases at the conclusion of his three-week sojourn was not realized, but he did paint at least eighteen views of Etretat dated 1883.
The irony of the research relates to the thrust of Impressionist work; these artists strove to rebel against academic accuracy in their work. Monet, Renoir, Degas, Pissaro… they all embraced a radical artistic style that focused on freely brushed colors vice carefully crafted lines and contours.
But Olson admits some mystery remains about the painting. “You can’t ruin a painting’s mystique through technical analysis,” Olson said in a 2009 interview with Smithsonian Magazine. “It still has the same emotional impact. We are just separating the real from the unreal.”