Edvard Munch’s The Scream is one of the world’s most iconic paintings, easily recognizable and usually identifiable by even those that have only a passing knowledge of art and art history. It’s the stuff of nightmares, terrifying with its foreground figure, twisted with terror, and its unearthly red and orange sky. It’s easy to assume that it’s just a matter of some creative and artistic license being taken with the colors to give the painting an even more eerie feel, but that’s not the case. That’s what Munch was looking at during the winter months of 1883–1884.
That brilliant, eerie red sky was a twilight evening after the eruption of Krakatoa. Situated in what’s now Indonesia, the eruption was heard as far away as Australia and caused tsunamis that swept through waters as far away as the English Channel. Settlements across the Indian Ocean were wiped out by the tidal waves. Volcanic pumice rafts created by the explosion were found drifting up the coast of Africa up to a year later, carrying the skeletons of those that had fallen victim to the deadly tsunamis. The sky was dark for days with ash and debris.
The explosion was four times larger than the most powerful man-made bomb. It destroyed islands, changed the landscape of the ocean floor, and left behind another smaller (but still growing) volcano, the aptly named Child of Krakatoa. And it’s thought that earlier eruptions of the volcanic giant were responsible for similar, world-altering phenomena, including a period of global climate change.
And for months, the evening sky was turned the same brilliant colors that Edvard Munch included in his epic painting. The eruption took place in August 1883: Until around February of the following year, there were still dust particles suspended in the atmosphere around the world. The reflection of the light of the setting sun through these particles created the bloody-looking sunsets that could be seen everywhere—even as far away from Krakatoa as Munch’s Oslo, Norway.
Researchers at Texas State University have found the exact spot that’s depicted in The Scream—facing south, overlooking Ekeberg Hill in Norway. The place where Munch’s distorted figure is standing is an old road, which makes up the foreground of the painting. The background is the harbor, which can be seen to match up to the canvas when viewed from a rock outcropping above the road.
The evening sky’s strange appearance has been well documented in journals and scientific reports from the day and was recorded as happening as far away as London. Astronomers in Oslo also noted the distinctive red sky, which didn’t begin appearing until November 1883.
Even though The Scream wasn’t painted until 1893, Munch had a long tradition of painting events that had happened to him years before. The deaths of his mother and sister weren’t immortalized on the canvas until years after they had happened, so it’s not surprising that the hauntingly beautiful, bloody sky wouldn’t show up in such a twisted, surreal painting years later.