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“The Scream” Might Have Been Inspired By a Rare Type of Cloud

Smithsonian Magazine

Edvard Munch’s “The Scream” is iconic—but it's also mysterious. Why is the stressed-out subject screaming, anyway? A Norwegian scientist has an intriguing new theory, reports the BBC’s Jonathan Amos: Perhaps the scream was inspired by an atmospheric phenomenon called mother-of-pearl clouds.

The rare clouds got their nickname from the abalone shells they resemble. Also known as nacreous or polar stratospheric clouds, they’re iridescent and pretty unusual. They form in northerly latitudes during the winter when the dry stratosphere cools down.

Normally, the stratosphere is so dry that it can’t sustain clouds, but when temperatures get beneath about 108 degrees below zero, all of the scant moisture in the air gets chilly enough to form ice crystals. When the sun hits the perfect place along the horizon, those ice crystals reflect its rays, causing a shimmering, pearly effect.

Helene Muri, a meteorologist and cloud expert, recently gave a talk at this year's European Geosciences Union General Assembly about how the wavy mother-of-pearl clouds could be portrayed in Munch’s painting. “As an artist, they no doubt could have made an impression on him,” she tells Amos.

The clouds form in icy temperatures and can be viewed only at certain latitudes and times of day. (Wikimedia Commons)

Though the sky in "The Scream" is outlandish, the painting is widely believed to be autobiographical. Munch himself struggled with tragedy and fragile health that scholars believe could have informed the painting’s colors and themes. In a poem in his diary, Munch recalls the sky turning “blood red” after he felt “a wave of sadness” while walking with some friends. He put a similar poem on the frame of one of his versions of the painting.

That description has prompted other scientists to use natural phenomena to explain the origin of the painting. In 2004, physicists theorized that the clouds were created when Krakatoa erupted in Indonesia—an event that caused spectacular sunsets throughout Europe. But it’s tricky to ascribe a particular date, time, or event to a piece of art, especially since painting is by nature so subjective.

It turns out that mother-of-pearl clouds have a dark side: As Nathan Case explains for The Conversation, they cause the ozone layer to further break down by stoking a reaction that produces free radicals, which can destroy atmospheric ozone. That’s something to scream about—but until scientists invent artistic time machines, their theories about the weather events that precipitated history’s greatest paintings will remain mere suppositions.

“The Rose of No Man's Land”

National Museum of American History
This sheet music is for the song “The Rose of No Man's Land.” The lyrics were written by Jack Caddigan and the music was composed by James A. Brennan. The sheet music was published by Leo Feist, Inc. of New York City in 1918. The red cover features an illustration of a nurse in No Man’s Land looking heavenward into a ray of light. The song was written as a tribute to Red Cross nurses serving in World War One, and this is the Patriotic War Edition that was printed on smaller paper to help the war effort.

“The Rosary”

National Museum of American History
This sheet music is for the song “The Rosary.” The lyrics come from a poem of the same name by Robert Cameron Rogers, and the music was composed by Georgia B. Welles. The sheet music was published by Eclipse Publishing Company of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in 1908. The cover features a floral print background, and an inset illustration of a dark haired woman clutching a beaded rosary that is signed “Starmer.”

“The Queen of Charcoal Alley”

National Museum of American History
This sheet music for the song “The Queen of Charcoal Alley” was written by Andrew B. Sterling and composed by Howard and Emerson. The music was originally published by T. B. Harms and Co. of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in 1900, and appeared as a musical supplement to the “Philadelphia Press” on Sunday, November 25, 1900. The cover features an illustration of a well dressed black couple with a poodle, and the illustration is framed with drawings of sunflowers.

“The Poem of Fujiwara no Michinobu Ason” from the series The Hundred Poems Explained by the Nurse (Hyaku’nin Isshu Uba-ga-Etoki)

Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum
Travelers setting out at the first blush of dawn shows pairs of men running with heavy cargo balancing on their shoulders — two sets in the foreground alternate between men who are carrying bails of round sacks. Shown in the bottom right corner is a man bent over to fix his sandal with his heavy load resting on the side. The background shows a trail of workers running further in the distance. In front of them is a slower group of people hunched over as they walk towards the rising sun. Throughout the landscape are meandering trails and the silhouette of a forest just beyond the horizon.

“The Pick of the Family”

National Museum of American History
This sheet music is for the song “The Pick of the Family (Take a Look at Her).” The lyrics were written by Jeff Branen and the music was composed by Arthur Lange. The sheet music was published by Joe Morris Music Co. of New York City in 1914. The cover features an illustration of an old father pointing to a multitude of daughters behind him, and an inset photograph of Chappy O’Donnell at the bottom of the cover. The cover illustration is signed De Takacs, by illustrator André De Takacs.

“The Old Pine Tree”

National Museum of American History
This sheet music is for the song “The Old Pine Tree” with lyrics written by Sarah M. Delano Cornell and music composed by J.C. Wilson Hughes. The Berlile Music Publishing Company of Boston, Massachusetts published the sheet music in 1905. The cover has an illustration of a large pine tree by a country road running along a lake. The illustration is signed “Fisher” in the lower left, and there is an inset photograph of an unidentified actress on the right.

“The Old Gum Tree”

National Museum of American History
This sheet music is for the song “The Old Gum Tree.” The cover notes that the song was “sung with rapturous applause by the Ethiopian Serenaders,” and “composed for the Piano Forte by R.O. Wilson.” The song was composed in 1848, and was part of the culture of “coon songs” that became popular entertainment during the period. “Ethiopian” singers and performers were what blackface performers often called themselves, traveling in troupes and performing various song and dance numbers in often crass and racist stereotypes.

“The Musical Gift”

National Museum of American History
This sheet music for the song “The Musical Gift” was published by Spear and Denhoff of New York, NY in 1881. The cover features a border of flowers that enclose the title with a lyre, trumpet, and violin crossed in the center. This “Musical Gift” seems to have been the sixth volume of a collection of popular music published by Spear and Denhoff.

“The Mockingbird Quickstep”

National Museum of American History
This sheet music is for the song “The Mockingbird Quickstep” that was arranged for the piano by J.A. Rosenberger. The song was a quickstep march published by George Dunn & Company of Richmond, Virginia in 1864. Interestingly, this song was published in the South during the Civil War, as the cover notes that the song was entered “by Geo. Dunn in the Clerk’s Office of the District Court of the Confederate United States of America.”

“The Man Behind the Gun"

National Museum of American History
This sheet music is for the song “The Man Behind the Gun” March. The song was composed by John Philip Sousa, and published by The John Church Company in 1899. The cover features an illustrated portrait of John Philip Sousa with a rope tied to an anchor in front of a flag of stars. The song was part of the musical “Chris and the Wonderful Lamp,” which Sousa wrote the music for.

“The Maine's Avenger”

National Museum of American History
This sheet music for the song “The Maine’s Avenger: A March Dedicated to Commodore George Dewey” was written by E.A. Couturier in 1898, and featured in “New York Herald” on Sunday, May 8, 1898. Couturier was noted as the conductor of Gilmore’s Band. The sinking of the U.S.S. Maine in Havana resulted in the outbreak of the Spanish-American War, with American forces engaging Spanish forces in its various colonial holdings. One such engagement was the Battle of Manila Bay, a decisive American victory in the Philippines that was led by Commodore George Dewey, who was hailed as a hero.

“The Maiden's Prayer”

National Museum of American History
This sheet music is for the song “The Maiden's Prayer” which was composed by Thécla (Tekla) Badarzewska in 1856. The sheet music was published by the Armstrong Music Publishing Company in the early 1900s. The white and red cover features an inset illustration of a maiden kneeling before a cross and candles in front of her window, as light shines down on her face. This song was published in Polish and French prior to being published in English, which is why the sub-title is “La Priére D’une Vierge.”

“The Lord Is My Shepherd (23rd Psalm)”

National Museum of American History
This sheet music for the song "The Lord Is My Shepherd (23rd Psalm)" was written and composed by John B. Marsh and published by the William. A. Pond and Co. of New York, New York in 1898. This cover is plain paper with black text, but the phrase “The Lord” is underlined by the image of a shepherd’s staff. The contralto solo was written with affectionate regard to Mr. Warren Pond.

“The Last Time I Saw Paris”

National Museum of American History
This sheet music is for the song “The Last Time I Saw Paris.” The lyrics were written by Oscar Hammerstein and the music was composed by Jerome Kern. The sheet music was published by the T.B. Harms Company of New York, New York in 1940. The cover features an illustration of a silhouetted woman as well as images of Paris floating across the cover. There is an inset photograph of Hildegarde sitting at a piano, which notes that the song was “introduced and featured by Hildegarde,” meaning that she had been performing the tune at shows and clubs, and now her image was being used to sell the sheet music.

“The Ladies Guide to Needle Work, Embroidery, etc” by S. Annie Frost, 1877

National Museum of American History
“The Ladies Guide to Needle Work, Embroidery, etc” by S. Annie Frost. Bound hard cover book with full description of all the various stitches and materials and a large number of illustration for each variety of work. New York;1877. 158 pgs

“The Kinkajou”

National Museum of American History
This sheet music is for the song “The Kinkajou,” that was composed by Harry Tierney and written by Joseph McCarthy. The music was published by Leo Feist Inc. of New York, New York in 1926. The book was written by Guy Bolton and Fred Thompson, and the musical starred Bebe Daniels and John Boles, and was an RKO Production. The cover is a deep red color featuring an illustration of a seductive looking woman wearing a wide brim hat with red tassels. The song is from Ziegfeld’s musical "Rio Rita" and the woman on the cover is the character of Rio Rita.

“The Jack O'Lantern Girl”

National Museum of American History
This sheet music for the song “The Jack O’Lantern Girl” was written by Glen MacDonough and composed by Victor Herbert. The music was published by Witmark and Sons of New York, New York in 1904, and appeared as a supplement to the New York Herald on March 12, 1905. The cover features an illustration of “Jack O’ Lanterns” wearing trench coats and top hats behind a photo of Miss Bessie Clayton dancing “on point.” An inset photograph of Lew M. Fields is on the lower left. The cover notes that the song was “sung by Miss Bessie Clayon in “It Happened in Nordland.”

“The High School Cadets March”

National Museum of American History
This sheet music is for the song “The High School Cadets March,” which was composed by John Philip Sousa. The sheet music was published by Harry Coleman of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in 1930. The song was part of a compilation called “Popular Compositions for Piano by John Philip Sousa.” The cover notes that Sousa was the director of the Marine Band, a position he held from 1880-1892.

“The Girlie with the Baby Stare”

National Museum of American History
This sheet music is for the song “The Girlie with the Baby Stare” that was written by Ernest Hanegan and composed by William H. Penn. The sheet music was published by Sol Bloom of New York, New York in 1902. The purple and orange cover features an inset photograph of Frank Daniels, who sang the song with great success in “Miss Simplicity.”

“The Girl You Love”

National Museum of American History
This sheet music is for the song “The Girl You Love,” a song that was written and composed by Paul A. Rubens. The sheet music was published by Sol Bloom of New York City in 1901. The white and purple cover has a central photograph of Edna Wallace Hopper seated on a stool. Wallace performed this tune in John C. Fischer’s production of the musical “The Silver Slipper.”

“The Girl I Left Behind Me”

National Museum of American History
This sheet music is for the song “The Girl I Left Behind Me.” This version of the song was composed by William Dressler, and published by S. Brainard & Co. in 1861. The cover describes the song as “a popular Irish melody with variations.” There is an image of a soldier marching off to war waving to his girl who is waving to him. This song was likely published in 1861 as the Civil War was beginning to get underway, and was often used as a marching song during the 19th century, although the Confederacy and Union had different versions.

“The Fencing Girl Waltz”

National Museum of American History
This sheet music is for the song “The Fencing Girl Waltz,” that was composed by Fred T. Ashton. The Ashton Publishing Company of Bloomington, Illinois published the sheet music in 1902. The black cover has an image of a young girl holding a fencing foil, drawn in white.
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