Edvard Munch’s famous painting The Scream touches our souls with the angst and pain depicted. The features of the protagonist evoking fear and excruciating pain together with the intense red and yellow color scheme of the sky immediately make us share that anguish. How the painting manages to evoke all those emotions by just staring at it is what has made it such an iconic artwork.
Naturally, the importance this painting has achieved not only in the artistic and cultural world but also as a popular icon has made it one of the most studied pieces in history, and what seems to get most of the attention is that aggressive sky. Many has been said about the color scheme and the intentions behind Munch’s interesting color selection. Among the most popular throughout time are that Munch was experiencing (or at least trying to portray) some sort of synesthesia, that it’s all the expression of his trauma and anxiety, or that he witnessed the unique consequences of the Krakatoa volcanic eruption ten years before painting it.
While in art everything is subjective, and unless the artist expresses his intentions in his work, it’s hard to have a definite answer. However, a team of research scientists believes that this particular sky has uncanny similarities to a rare meteorological phenomenon that happened in Norway about the time Munch set off to paint the first versions of his iconic painting. This phenomenon is popularly known as ‘mother-of-pearl clouds’, and it fits way much better than the previous and similar explanation of the volcanic eruption that more than making the skies bright red brought some sort of darkness to the Western hemisphere for some months between 1883 and 1884 (as mentioned, a decade before Munch painted The Scream).
So, what are these mother-of-pearl clouds and how are they similar to the sky depicted in The Scream?
What are ‘mother-of-pearl clouds’?
The actual scientific name of this rare meteorological phenomenon is Nacreous clouds or Stratospheric Clouds. However, it took the most popular term since the iridescence of the clouds resembles the pearly effect of the abalone shells. These clouds tend to form in northern latitudes during the winter and it happens exactly when the temperature of the dry stratosphere cools down.
The stratosphere is normally dry all over the planet allowing the formation of regular clouds, but in the hemispheres, where temperatures can get beneath 108 degrees below zero, the unique moisture of the environment creates ice crystals on the clouds that when hit with the rays of the sun reflect a bright and iridescent color similar to that of the pearls.
Is the red sky in The Scream mother-of-pearl-clouds?
Now, could this be the reason why Munch got inspired to paint The Scream? It’s likely. The day he came up with the idea and started working on the first version of the painting, he wrote in his diary that he had gone out to take a walk with two close friends. It was a chilly day in 1893, and as he describes it was all calm but the sky showed some “blood-red clouds and tongues of fire.” According to registers, around that time Norway experienced what many scientists assure was the mother-of-pearl clouds phenomenon, and although art historians had taken Munch’s diary entry as a metaphorical explanation of his emotions, it seems he was talking quite literally.
According to Alan Robock, one of the scientists in charge of the 2004 research that claims that The Scream is a portrayal of the mother-of-pearl clouds phenomenon, “the person is not screaming; the sky is screaming. The person is putting hands over their ears to block out the scream of nature.”
Furthermore, in 2017, a new study called Screaming Clouds, confirmed that Norway experienced the phenomenon between 1890 and 1892, around the same time Munch was working on the different versions of The Scream and also the time when he started to experiment with “raucous skies” in his pieces. Finding this extremely coincidental not to be true, we can say that instead of a painting portraying the inner angst of an artist, it’s the artist expressing what his environment made him feel.