astro-sleuths solve an art mystery

Art historians know that in 1889 Vincent van Gogh painted one of his masterpieces, “Moonrise,” but they were never able to pinpoint the exact moment portrayed in the painting. (Never let it be said that art historians are less obsessed than scientists in their quest for precise measurements.) Enter astronomer Donald Olson of Southwest Texas State University and his colleagues. As they report in the July issue of Sky & Telescope magazine, the team traveled to Saint-Remy-de-Provence in France to identify the landmarks in the painting. They then consulted topographical and lunar maps, aerial photographs, weather records, and van Gogh’s letters to help them calculate the precise time and date of the painted scene: 9:08 p.m. on July 13, 1889. Our long international nightmare of ignorance is finally over.

This news brief appeared in the Random Data column of the Boston Globe’s Health/Science section on 6/17/2003.
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