The work that gave Impressionism its name was painted in France on a foggy morning in the early 1870s. It wasn’t until this year that it had a date of birth: Nov. 13, 1872, in the Norman port city of Le Havre. Ever since Claude Monet’s “Impression” — a hazy port scene of blue-gray shadows with a sanguine sun flickering off the water — was displayed as part of a group show in Paris in 1874, historians have argued over exactly when, where and even what Monet painted, notes Jake Cigainero in the International New York Times. The Musée Marmottan Monet in Paris, which houses the world’s largest collection of the artist’s works, decided that 140 years of uncertainty was enough. To commemorate the museum’s 80th anniversary, it is presenting “Monet’s Impression, Sunrise: The Biography of a Painting,” which through Jan. 18 takes a Sherlock Holmes-like look at the birth and life of the masterpiece.
The exhibition includes 26 works by Monet and 35 pieces by other Impressionists such as Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Camille Pissarro and Alfred Sisley, alongside historical documents that map the life of Monet’s painting, which is known today as “Impression, Sunrise.” Marianne Mathieu, deputy director of the Marmottan and co-curator of the exhibition, said the museum wanted to “bridge art and science” to make the facts and history of the work understood through paintings and documents. Critics panned the Impressionist style when it emerged in a group exhibition by a collective that included Monet and others, like Paul Cézanne and Edgar Degas. Reviews were harsh for the artists’ departure from the academic style of painting that critics were used to seeing in official salons. The artists hit back by taking their movement’s name from a mocking article titled “The Impressionists’ Exhibition,” after the title of Monet’s painting — which, in its initial showing, was called simply “Impression.”
The painting itself is not as aesthetically compelling as Monet’s serene water lilies, nor has it carried the same market value as other contemporaneous works such “Le Pont de l’Europe, Gare Saint-Lazare” from 1876. Its value lies rather in its place in history.
But the memory of its importance faded after that first exhibition, Ms. Matthieu said, and no one paid much attention as writers and archivists through the years gave the painting different names. In 1878, it was auctioned as “Impression, Sunset,” and the next year exhibited as “Fog Effect.” One writer in 1927 even changed the scene’s location, describing it as a view of the River Seine in the Paris suburbs.
The year has also been botched in records despite a clear “72” next to Monet’s signature. The art dealer Daniel Wildenstein listed the painting as a piece from 1873 in his five-volume catalogue raisonné of Monet’s work. According to Ms. Mathieu, Mr. Wildenstein grouped all of Monet’s Normandy landscapes painted in 1872 and 1873 into the later date based on documents confirming the painter’s visit to the region in April of that year.
Ms. Mathieu said the museum was “certain” that the painting depicted a sunrise in Le Havre in 1872, but it wanted proof to close the case. She enlisted Donald W. Olson, an astrophysicist at Texas State University in San Marcos, a self-described “celestial sleuth.” Ms. Mathieu knew Mr. Olson for his work tracing viewpoint locations and time stamps for Monet’s 12 landscapes of the Étretat cliffs from the 1880s.
Mr. Olson’s first foray into forensic astronomy was in 1985, when a colleague in the English department asked him to look into a pivotal plot element involving high tide in “The Franklin’s Tale” from Chaucer’s “The Canterbury Tales.” “That changed my life, because he asked me to apply science to literature,” Mr. Olson said. Investigations into historical events and works of art followed, such as tracking the exact locations from which Van Gogh painted his starry nightscapes, and linking a volcanic eruption on Krakatoa to the orange skies of Edvard Munch’s “The Scream.” When Ms. Mathieu contacted Mr. Olson in February about taking on “Impression,” she did not know that he had already begun investigating the painting 15 years earlier and had been collecting 19th-century photos of Le Havre. Other projects and the unavailability of information that was needed to advance the investigation delayed Mr. Olson. The trail heated up again in March when he found an online cache of historical morning meteorology records for the port from the period when “Impression” was thought to have been painted. The archives had been uploaded by the French national weather service as part of a new data rescue program to digitize and preserve documents. “It was a miracle,” Mr. Olson said. “We have someone writing down the weather every day at the exact time we’re looking at. They could have looked over and seen Monet painting in the window.”
That window, where Monet sat to paint, was also the subject of investigation. Though there are no letters or records to confirm that Monet stayed at the Hôtel de l’Amirauté overlooking the port of Le Havre in 1872 or 1873, hotel registers confirm that he stayed there in 1874, a year in which he produced another painting of the same harbor. Based on this, a collection of more than 400 photographs, a historical map, and identifying structures in Monet’s 1874 painting “Le Grand Quai,” Mr. Olson used trigonometry and geometry to place Monet at the hotel window when “Impression” was painted.
To date the painting, Mr. Olson began by noting that the sun rises in the southeast of the landscape, which he said occurs in that position only in mid-November and late January. Prominent shadows of vertical masts in the painting indicate that it must have been painted at high tide, otherwise large vessels would not have been able to pass through the outer harbor. Looking at moon and tide records, Mr. Olson selected a range of 19 possible dates when conditions would have been right for big ships. Using the weather reports, Mr. Olson matched official observations of mist, fog and calm seas with the painting’s haze and other conditions to narrow down the list to six possible dates on which Monet could have painted “Impression.” Finally, Mr. Olson noted that smoke plumes in the painting waft from east to west, which matches the wind direction in records for two dates, Nov. 13, 1872 and Jan. 25, 1873. Since Monet signed the painting “72,” curators felt comfortable going with the November date. “It’s something magical because all the information is in the painting,” Ms. Mathieu said.
By JAKE CIGAINERO OCT. 29, 2014
A version of this article appears in print on October 23, 2014, in The International New York Times.