Origin Behind “The Scream”

| August 24, 2019 @ 2:30 pm


Painting by Edvard Munch in 1893

Discussion: Nature and art go hand in hand. Many choose to express their feeling of appreciation, awe, or perhaps fear of nature through artwork, whether that be protruding jagged mountains, deep canyons, lush fields, intense sculpted thunderstorms, the list goes on. The painting above, by Norwegian artist Edvard Munch in 1893, is no different. A specific natural event in history 10 years prior to this painting may have inspired portions of the sky in this iconic image, in addition to a rare type of cloud. That event was the eruption of the volcano Krakatau in 1883. Whether or not this was the exact inspiration behind the artwork, volcanoes do create stunning sunsets as well as other climatic influences.

Volcanic eruptions have a variety of climate impacts across the globe. Perhaps the most noteworthy influence is global cooling as solar radiation is blocked by ash and sulfur compounds shot into the stratosphere. These compounds also reflect blue light leaving the more vibrant red and orange colors on display. As a result, incredible sunsets with vivid red and orange coloring become more likely after a volcanic eruption. One example is shown below.

Picture Sunset Madison, Wisconsin July 1982 after the El Chichón eruption.
Photograph by Alan Robock, Professor Rutgers University

?Here’s where the painting comes into play. The eruption of Krakatau in 1883 was powerful enough to inject large amounts of ash and sulfur into the atmosphere which circled the globe for years after the eruption. The climate was temporarily altered, the Earth was cooled, and the sunsets were perhaps vibrant enough for Edvard Munch to describe them as nature/the sky screaming. See for yourself below how this was expressed by Munch:

“I was walking along a path with two friends – the sun was setting – suddenly the sky turned blood red – I paused, feeling exhausted, and leaned on the fence – there was blood and tongues of fire above the blue-black fjord and the city – my friends walked on, and I stood there trembling with anxiety – and I sensed an infinite scream passing through nature.”

-Edvard Munch

There is no way to know exactly what inspired Munch. There has been a new theory proposed by a few scientists about the true influence behind “The Scream”. The wavy like pattern of the sky/clouds in the painting seem to resemble the rare stratospheric clouds named nacreous or otherwise known as “mother of pearl” clouds. These clouds certainly could have a philosophical impact on someone. 

Photo: Simon A


This photograph shows polar stratospheric clouds lit from below near Kiruna, Sweden.
Image credit: NASA/Lamont Poole 

“We don’t know if Munch painted exactly what he saw,” Rutgers Professor Alan Robock said. “He could have been influenced by the Krakatau sunset and nacreous clouds and combined them. The Krakatau sunset was several years before he made the painting, but he still may have remembered it. We have to remember that he is an artist. That face in the foreground [of the painting] is not a face, why should we trust that the sky is exactly what he saw. Maybe he combined his feelings that he got from different skies and put it together in a picture”.

Regardless of the exact reason behind Munch’s painting, volcanic eruptions do have a large impact on the climate. For example, patterns in large scale climate oscillations (North Atlantic Oscillation and Arctic Oscillation), summer cooling, winter warming, to name a few, among others. More on the volcanic aspect will be covered in the future, be sure to visit GWCC’s climate section here to watch out for these additional pieces!

©2019 Meteorologist Joe DeLizio



Polar Strat Images:


Munch Quote:

(Multiple sources have slight variations of the wording of this quote but express the same notion).

Portions of Dr Alan Robock’s Quotes:

He made an appearance on The Weather Channel explaining “The Scream” and the new and old theories.

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