Celestial Sleuth: Using Astronomy to Date Monet’s Étretat, Sunset

Whiteman Hall

Speaker: Donald W. Olson, professor at Texas State University and author of Celestial Sleuth: Using Astronomy to Solve Mysteries in Art, History and Literature

How do astronomical methods make it possible to identify celestial objects and to calculate dates and times for night-sky paintings by Vincent van Gogh and J. M. W. Turner? Why is there a blood-red sky in Edvard Munch’s The Scream? On what dates did Ansel Adams create his moonrise photographs in Yosemite?  To answer questions like these, faculty and students from Texas State University have made research trips to the relevant sites and have published a series of articles over the last two decades, applying astronomy to art.

This talk will focus on a research trip to Normandy in 2012, when the Texas State group found the precise location where Claude Monet set up his easel for The Cliff, Étretat, Sunset, featured in Leonardo da Vinci’s Codex Leicester and the Power of Observation. Analysis based on the direction of the setting Sun, topographic measurements at the site, calculations of tide levels, meteorological archives, and the artist’s letters made it possible to determine the exact date and the precise time when Monet observed the sky that inspired this sunset painting. This talk will also give examples showing how the phenomenon called “earthshine,” first explained by Leonardo da Vinci in The Codex Leicester, has been depicted by such artists as Samuel Palmer and Caspar David Friedrich.

Cost: This lecture is on a #FreeAdmissionWednesday evening and is free and open to the public.

Image Credit


Leonardo da Vinci (1452 – 1519, Italian), Codex Leicester, c.1506-10 (detail). Ink on paper. Each double sheet 11 ¾” x 17 5/8” Image Courtesy ©bgC3

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