The Skies Were Actually Red In ‘The Scream’

“The sky turns red and the clouds takes new form, / it has been like this from before I was born.” —Edward Wilson, Reflections of a Poet’s Mind

In A Nutshell

Even those of us who have only a passing association with art are probably familiar with the tortured, almost alien-like figure screaming at the viewer against a blood-red sky in Edvard Munch’s The Scream. It’s the stuff of nightmares, and probably came from what the artist himself was looking at. The unnatural color of the sky was no coincidence; that unearthly sky really did look that way in 1883 after the eruption of Krakatoa.

The Whole Bushel

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.

Show Me The Proof

Don’t Scream for Me, Krakatoa
CNN: Why they sky was red in Munch’s ‘The Scream’
Australian Bureau of Meteorology: The eruption of Krakatoa, August 27, 1883

  • Lisa 39

    Wow, i guess now we know why the guy is screaming, awesome article.

    • Nathaniel A.

      I know nothing about the speed of volcanic ash fallout, so maybe the guy was screaming with delight at the pretty sight, the way some people do during a vivid sunset, and not screaming with fear at the ash covering everything.

      • Lisa 39

        That’s a good possibility, maybe they thought it was just a beautiful sight at first, regardless of how scary mother nature is, sometimes its a spectacular sight!

        • lbatfish

          One summer in central Alaska, we had a massive forest fire that was surrounding three sides of our village. The fire was too far away to see, but it made a huge amount of very dense black smoke — about as dark as the sky at night.

          However, there was a thin “slice” of clear air just above the horizon, which when the sun was near the horizon let bright sunlight in, underneath the smoke cloud. So what it looked liked was some huge solid object floating above us that was blocking all of the light from above.

          Remember what it looked like in “Independence Day” when one of the alien spacecraft was completely covering Los Angeles? Same sort of appearance, but much larger. And real.

          • Lisa 39

            Beautiful but scary, wow, i hope noboby was hurt.

          • lbatfish

            No humans, no.

          • Lisa 39

            That’s good, sid you get evacuated?

          • lbatfish

            No need, because it didn’t get quite close enough.

            Good thing that it didn’t, though, because the only way out would have been by air (due to a lack of connecting roads in bush Alaska). And when the sky is full of smoke, well, flying isn’t a great idea, either . . . .

          • Lisa 39

            Remind me to never live anyplace that remote, that’s just scary.

          • Wow! Sounds amazing but scary.

      • lbatfish

        Being almost 7000 miles away, I don’t think the amount of remaining ash would have caused any Oslo residents to scream. Except maybe for housewives who’d put a lot of white linens out to dry.

      • inconspicuous detective

        i assume that most people thought how you did in pompeii, and that’s why so many of them ended up dead ;D

      • Probably not with delight. My great-grandmother was a girl in Australia when Krakatoa exploded/erupted. She heard a loud explosion, saw red skies. She vividly remembered it as a terrifying event when adults, such as her Mum, fell to their knees in horror. Many were sure it was the end of the world.

  • Andy West

    Maybe because I never truly look at things, more of a cursory glance, I thought that it was a dog with long ears and a black nose. Now I now don’t I?

  • Check

    Even with my art background, I did not know this. Makes a lot of sense, for sure. Learned something new!

  • Hillyard

    I would have loved to have seen those sunsets, minus the whole volcano thing.

  • UN

    Brilliant article for an brilliant piece of art

  • 1DireWolf

    Cool Beanz.

  • MonroeTheCynic

    I used to always wonder who were the two guys behind him. It was a toss up between government agents or mental hospital security.

  • new

    it would be interesting if the painting depicts an alien invasion, something like this:
    The UFO arrives with it’s power, the UFO vacuumed the earth, human beings become distorted it capture’s humans and beat them to bloody pulp then spray their blood. The sky turns bloody red, and one human screams it finals.

  • Mark

    I live in Norway and, whilst I am sure all your information is correct, red skies are not that unusual, particularly at dawn. As a keen amateur photographer I have taken numerous pictures of blood red skies over the past twenty years.

    • I also have lots of pix of brilliant red skies. Here, on the central coast of CA, it’s usually a result of forest fires spilling ash into the atmosphere.

  • treky chick

    I read he based the guy on a Chinchorro mummy, and that’s why the mouth is a round o

  • I2IQ2HI

    Great article.
    I often Scream when I Krakatoa.. Hahahahaha god that cracks me up, every single time I tell it. Hahahahaha. 🙂