Donald Olson walked 10 steps down a beach in the French town of Étretat before pausing to snap a photo of the setting sun.
He walked systematically from one end of the beach to the other, stopping every 10 steps to take another photo. Olson, physics and astronomy professor, was looking to uncover the exact “moment of inspiration” for the Claude Monet painting “Étretat Sunset” through studying a combination of celestial body movements and distinctive landforms depicted in the painting.
Monet began the painting Feb. 5, 1883 at 4:53 p.m., according to Olson’s research findings.
It is no easy task to date a painting back to the exact minute the artist began working on it, but bringing humanities and sciences together in the process is important, Olson said.
Olson first began experimenting with art when fellow professors asked him to help them discover the astronomy behind the skies depicted in “The Canterbury Tales” and the natural elements impacting a military battle from World War II, he said. Olson and the professors researched the moon and tide patterns during each of the time periods and wrote computer programs to help with their findings.
“My next thought was, if you can study the skies of the 14th century and the skies of World War II, then we can try to figure out what Van Gogh was looking at,” Olson said.
This thought led Olson to research the “moment of inspiration” for dozens of paintings all over the world.
Impressionist paintings often depict outdoor settings, making it possible to determine when and where the works were created because of distinctive foregrounds.
Olson said Monet painted dozens of scenes of Étretat depicting sunsets and twilights, but chose to study “Étretat Sunset” because the painting is the only one that shows a setting sun rather than just a glow in the sky. Distinctive rock formations also helped place the painting.
Olson said he calls himself and his team “celestial sleuths” because they are doing detective work and putting pieces of a puzzle together.
“(Olson is) extremely good at problem solving,” said Philip Smith, physics lecturer and Olson’s former student. “He’s probably one of the sharpest people I’ve ever met.”
Russell Doescher, physics senior lecturer, said he has been working with Olson since the ‘90s.
“It makes a wonderful working relationship—we can just bounce ideas off of each other without fear,” Doescher said.
Doescher went with Olson on a five-day trip to Étretat, France in August 2012 to take photos of the original Monet painting to help the team investigating the artwork.
“It’s a fascinating thing to do—it makes the art more true to the meaning of what the artist was doing, rather than somebody making up a story because they don’t understand the astronomy,” Doescher said.
Accuracy is extremely important when uncovering the precise moment of a painting’s inception, Olson said.
“He’s obsessed with being correct. He always double checks, triple checks and quadruple checks everything,” Smith said. “He’s the kind of guy who doesn’t really make mistakes—it’s phenomenal.”
Olson said he allows students from his honors classes to help research various paintings in class, but feels visiting the artwork in person is the best way to learn firsthand.
“We do primary research. You want to know how tall something is? You go there,” Olson said.
Olson uses three criteria when deciding whether to conduct in-depth research on a painting—if it is interesting, difficult enough to be a challenge and easy enough to finish in his lifetime.
Edvard Munch, Van Gogh and Ansel Adams are just a sample of the artists Olson and his team have researched.
“We really do enjoy what we do,” Olson said. “We try to understand the universe.”