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Click: Texas State’s ‘Celestial Sleuths’ in search of Monet at sea

Click: Texas State’s ‘Celestial Sleuths’ in search of Monet at sea For a few days during the first week of February, the setting sun passes just to the right of the Porte d'Aval and the Needle, as seen from Monet’s location. This February 2012 photograph is a near-match to Monet’s sunset painting. A few minutes after this photograph was taken, the sun dropped to an altitude corresponding better to Monet’s canvas, but thick clouds near the horizon blocked the view. PHOTO by JEAN LANGLOIS. USED WITH PERMISSION OF THE SOCIETE ASTROMINIQUE DE HAVRE The Texas State group carried postcard-sized prints of the paintings and used them to find dozens of Monet’s locations during the August 2012 trip to Normandy. For the canvass known as W258, the Porte d'Amont, Étretat, this matching photograph looks to the southwest as the small Amont frames a view of the distant Needle. TEXAS STATE UNIVERSITY PHOTO

| On 23, Jan 2014


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Claud Monet’s painting “Étretat: Sunset.” COURTESY OF THE NORTH CAROLINA MUSEUM OF ART, RALEIGH

Claud Monet’s painting “Étretat: Sunset.” COURTESY OF THE NORTH CAROLINA MUSEUM OF ART, RALEIGH

Texas State honor students (left to right) Hannah Reynolds, Ava Pope and Laura Bright on a trail that leads from the top of the Amont cliff down to the beach. Visible in the background are the Porte d'Aval and the Needle, features in Monet’s “Étretat: Sunset.” TEXAS STATE UNIVERSITY PHOTO

Texas State honor students (left to right) Hannah Reynolds, Ava Pope and Laura Bright on a trail that leads from the top of the Amont cliff down to the beach. Visible in the background are the Porte d’Aval and the Needle, features in Monet’s “Étretat: Sunset.” TEXAS STATE UNIVERSITY PHOTO

The waxing crescent moon passes through the dusk near the Porte d'Aval and the Need in this photograph taken during August 2012 from the northeast end of the Étretat terrace, which runs along the beach near the town’s hotels. PHOTO by RUSSELL DOESCHER

The waxing crescent moon passes through the dusk near the Porte d’Aval and the Need in this photograph taken during August 2012 from the northeast end of the Étretat terrace, which runs along the beach near the town’s hotels. PHOTO by RUSSELL DOESCHER

Ava Pope, Laura Bright, Texas State physics professor Don Olson and Hanna Reynolds at the cliffs at Étretat. TEXAS STATE UNIVERSITY PHOTO

Ava Pope, Laura Bright, Texas State physics professor Don Olson and Hanna Reynolds at the cliffs at Étretat. TEXAS STATE UNIVERSITY PHOTO

Laura Bright and physics professors Russell Doescher and Don Olson compare notes on Jambourg Beach with the Manneporte arch in the distance. TEXAS STATE UNIVERSITY PHOTO

Laura Bright and physics professors Russell Doescher and Don Olson compare notes on Jambourg Beach with the Manneporte arch in the distance. TEXAS STATE UNIVERSITY PHOTO

The Texas State group carried postcard-sized prints of the paintings and used them to find dozens of Monet’s locations during the August 2012 trip to Normandy. For the canvass known as W258, the Porte d'Amont, Étretat, this matching photograph looks to the southwest as the small Amont frames a view of the distant Needle. TEXAS STATE UNIVERSITY PHOTO

The Texas State group carried postcard-sized prints of the paintings and used them to find dozens of Monet’s locations during the August 2012 trip to Normandy. For the canvass known as W258, the Porte d’Amont, Étretat, this matching photograph looks to the southwest as the small Amont frames a view of the distant Needle. TEXAS STATE UNIVERSITY PHOTO

The matching photograph or the painting known as W1037, the Manneporte, looks to the northeast from the top of the cliff toward the enormous stone arch. The alignment to the base of the Needle, visible through the Manneport arch, allowed the Texas State group to determine Monet’s viewpoint with precision. PHOTO by HANNAH REYNOLDS

The matching photograph or the painting known as W1037, the Manneporte, looks to the northeast from the top of the cliff toward the enormous stone arch. The alignment to the base of the Needle, visible through the Manneport arch, allowed the Texas State group to determine Monet’s viewpoint with precision. PHOTO by HANNAH REYNOLDS

For a few days during the first week of February, the setting sun passes just to the right of the Porte d'Aval and the Needle, as seen from Monet’s location. This February 2012 photograph is a near-match to Monet’s sunset painting. A few minutes after this photograph was taken, the sun dropped to an altitude corresponding better to Monet’s canvas, but thick clouds near the horizon blocked the view. PHOTO by JEAN LANGLOIS. USED WITH PERMISSION OF THE SOCIETE ASTROMINIQUE DE HAVRE

For a few days during the first week of February, the setting sun passes just to the right of the Porte d’Aval and the Needle, as seen from Monet’s location. This February 2012 photograph is a near-match to Monet’s sunset painting. A few minutes after this photograph was taken, the sun dropped to an altitude corresponding better to Monet’s canvas, but thick clouds near the horizon blocked the view. PHOTO by JEAN LANGLOIS. USED WITH PERMISSION OF THE SOCIETE ASTROMINIQUE DE HAVRE

A vintage postcard photograph and a modern photograph of the Needle and the Porte d'Aval as seen from the Jambourg beach, accessible only at low tide. A comparison of the vintage postcard view from about 1905 to a photograph taken in 2012 indicates that the height of the Needle has not eroded significantly over the past century. PHOTO by AVA POPE

A vintage postcard photograph and a modern photograph of the Needle and the Porte d’Aval as seen from the Jambourg beach, accessible only at low tide. A comparison of the vintage postcard view from about 1905 to a photograph taken in 2012 indicates that the height of the Needle has not eroded significantly over the past century. PHOTO by AVA POPE

Hanna Reynolds and Laura Bright on the Jambourg beach. PHOTO by MARILYNN OLSON

Hanna Reynolds and Laura Bright on the Jambourg beach. PHOTO by MARILYNN OLSON

Texas State physics professor Don Olson took this photo from the same location where Monet created his sunset painting. Rocks still fall to the beach from the overhanging Amont cliff. TEXAS STATE UNIVERSITY PHOTO

Texas State physics professor Don Olson took this photo from the same location where Monet created his sunset painting. Rocks still fall to the beach from the overhanging Amont cliff. TEXAS STATE UNIVERSITY PHOTO

Ava Pope, Laura Bright, Hannah Reynolds, professor Russell Doescher, Jean Langlois, professor Don Olson, Roger Sinnott and Marilynn Olson stand on the Amont beach near Monet’s location for the sunset and daytime paintings. The forward point of the Amont promontory and the small Porte d'Amont arch are visible in the distance, about 425 yards away. TEXAS STATE UNIVERSITY PHOTO

Ava Pope, Laura Bright, Hannah Reynolds, professor Russell Doescher, Jean Langlois, professor Don Olson, Roger Sinnott and Marilynn Olson stand on the Amont beach near Monet’s location for the sunset and daytime paintings. The forward point of the Amont promontory and the small Porte d’Amont arch are visible in the distance, about 425 yards away. TEXAS STATE UNIVERSITY PHOTO


by JAYME BLASHKE

Famed French Impressionist Claude Monet created a striking scene of the Normandy coast in his 1883 painting, “Étretat: Sunset.” Now a team of Texas State University researchers, led by astronomer and physics professor Donald Olson, has applied its distinctive brand of forensic astronomy to Monet’s masterpiece, uncovering previously unknown details about the painting’s origins.

Olson, along with Texas State physics faculty member Russell Doescher and Texas State Honors College students Hannah Reynolds, Ava Pope and Laura Bright, publish their findings in the February 2014 issue of Sky & Telescope magazine, on newsstands now.

“Claude Monet, founding member of the Impressionist movement, painted a dramatic scene on the Normandy coast,” Olson said. “The canvas shows the orange disk of the Sun sinking toward the horizon near a spectacular line of cliffs.

“We like to use astronomy to show students how science can solve real-world puzzles,” he explained. “We asked, ‘Could we use the dramatic rocks in the landscape and the position of the setting sun to determine where and when, specifically, Monet created this beautiful masterpiece?'”

The artist at Étretat

Monet painted a series of paintings featuring this stretch of the Normandy coast during his three-week visit to the area during the winter of 1883. With “Étretat: Sunset,” Monet painted a cliff known as the Falaise d’Aval along with the arch Porte d’Aval overlapping a tall, needle-shaped rock spire known as Aiguille (the Needle) that stands just offshore. Key to the image, however, is a low, setting sun just to the right of the landforms. Of all the paintings Monet painted at Étretat, this is the only canvas that includes the disk of the sun, and that one detail opens the door to date the scene precisely.

To determine on which days in February the sun would’ve set in the proper location for Monet to capture in his painting, the team of Texas State researchers traveled in August 2012 to France.

Previously, art historians wrote that the scene had been painted by Monet standing just a few yards from a small arch called Porte d’Amont to the northeast of Étretat. But Olson quickly determined that for an observer in that location the Porte d’Aval and Aiguille do not overlap, and another rock formation is visible through the Aval arch–clearly a different view from Monet’s.

Monet’s hazards

The research team made extensive topographic measurements of the terrain at Étretat. To determine the exact locations where Monet stood, they walked systematically from one end of the beach to the other at low tide, armed with postcard-size reproductions of about a dozen Monet paintings of the area. They located the precise vantage points from which Monet created the various paintings.
“We were going out there at low water–it’s just safer that way,” Olson explained. “You don’t want to get caught on these beaches at high tide.

“Ava is accustomed to difficult hiking terrain, and she said that the beaches near Étretat had the most difficult footing she’d ever been on in her life. It’s really tough,” he said. “And as you get farther out, it gets worse, because it’s slippery, with the rocks covered with seaweed that’s still wet from the previous high tide. Here’s the thing that we realized from this research trip–Monet went out there with all of his painting equipment!”

The Texas State team found that the view matched the scene depicted in “Étretat: Sunset” at only one location—a spot 425 yards from the Porte d’Amont on a rocky beach under an overhanging cliff.

The crescent moon takes a bow

The researchers used planetarium software to compare the modern sky to that of the 19th century. Since the Texas State team visited in the summer, the sun was out of position to replicate the sunset from Monet’s painting. The waxing crescent moon, however, offered a convenient stand-in during the early evening hours, and star-fields became visible after moonset. By determining an astronomical coordinate called declination for the moon and stars, they were able to calculate the sun would have set along that path on Feb. 5, 1883. Allowing for some uncertainty, the researchers concluded that the correct date must fall in the range between Feb. 3 and Feb. 7, 1883.

The group then combed through letters Monet wrote from Étretat during his stay, along with weather records and tide tables from February of 1883 to confirm their date. They discovered that on Feb. 3 Monet was working on nearby Jambourg Beach and that the artist spent all day Feb. 4 entertaining his visiting brother. The tides of Feb. 6 did not match the painting, and Monet’s letters show that he paid close attention to the tides. On Feb. 7 cloudy weather and rain storms began. Through the process of elimination, the calculated date of Feb. 5 is the only one remaining that matches the sun’s position, the weather and the tide level in the painting.

Armed with that knowledge, the Texas State team used the height of the needle-like Aiguille formation to calculate the exact time from the altitude of the sun above the horizon.

“We were able to determine the month, day, hour and precise minute–accurate to plus or minus one minute–when Monet was inspired by that beautiful scene,” Olson said. “Monet observed this sunset on Feb. 5, 1883 at 4:53 p.m. local mean time.”

Celestial Sleuth

In addition to publication in the February 2014 issue of Sky & Telescope, the research into the Monet painting is one of two new projects included in Celestial Sleuth: Using Astronomy to Solve Mysteries in Art, History and Literature, out now from Springer Praxis Books.

The book collects many of Olson’s past forensic astronomy studies published over the past 25 years, including such topics as the Boston Tea Party, Julius Caesar’s invasion of Britain, the first Marathon run in ancient Greece; the works of Mary Shelley, Shakespeare, Walt Whitman, Omar Khayyam and Geoffrey Chaucer; and night skies depicted by artists such as Edvard Munch, J.M.W. Turner and Vincent van Gogh.


JAYME BLACHKE is director of Texas State University’s News Service.

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