Art historians have explained the intensely saturated sky in Edvard Munch’s iconic The Scream as being the result of synthesia, anxiety, or a volcanic explosion, but a new study champions another theory: that the composition’s ominous sky is an accurate representation of a meteorological phenomenon known as “mother-of-pearl” clouds. The typical colors in this rare weather scenario are a better match for the colors in Munch’s image than those of a volcanic explosion; and the circumstances under which mother-of-pearl clouds form match Munch’s environment at the time he made The Scream (1893).
On the day in 1893 when he painted the first of four versions of the famous work, with boldly colorful skies, Munch penned a diary entry describing a walk he had taken with two friends. Suddenly, he wrote, the sky became “blood-red clouds and tongues of fire.” Munch’s vivid language not only captures the feeling he might have had when witnessing the phenomenon, but also corresponds to the peculiar appearance of the clouds. One of the study’s co-authors, Alan Robock, even suggested to Earther that “the person is not screaming; the sky is screaming,” and that “the person is putting hands over their ears to block out the scream of nature.”
The theory put forth by Robock and his colleagues in the new research, Fred Prata and Richard Hamblyn, echoes another study that pointed to the same explanation. A 2017 study titled “Screaming Clouds” found that mother-of-pearl clouds occurred over Norway between 1890 and 1892, which is when Munch was developing a series of images featuring anxious figures and raucous clouds that would eventually produce his masterpiece. But even if Munch did paint from observation, or a memory of real life, The Scream is not exactly an objective portrayal of a natural phenomenon. As Robock put it: “The painting is his message to us of what it made him feel.”