On Nov. 13, 1872 at 7:35 a.m. in a hotel room in Le Havre France, artist Claude Monet began the paint strokes on a piece entitled "Impression, Soleil Levant" that would birth one of the most famous art movements of all time: impressionism.
Researchers often debate the exact time and date that this painting depicts, but an astronomer and physics professor from Texas State University, Donald Olson, recently uncovered the truth.
Although Monet signed the painting with the number "72," signifying the date, researchers often dismissed that number and suggested that Monet only worked in Le Havre in the spring of 1873. Although the scene in the painting definitively shows Le Havre, researchers historically argued about whether it depicted a sunrise or sunset.
Monet, himself, though, later verified that the painting occurred during a sunrise.
From that information, Olson began his research by looking at old photographs of the area depicted in the painting, as well as studying 19th-century maps. He also studied the painting itself, particularly the angle of the sun on the water below it. This helped him confirm the viewpoint of the photo, right down to the hotel room that Monet painted it from.
The date, however, proved trickier. Olson used a computer simulation to figure out tidal data for the time period. The large ships could only enter the harbor, as depicted in the painting, at high tide. He combined the sun's position with the tidal data and narrowed results down to 19 potential dates in November of 1872 and January of 1873.
To narrow that down even further, Olson studied weather reports from that time period. He ruled out days with bad weather and narrowed the potential dates down to just six.
The smoke columns depicted in the painting suggest a wind that's blowing from the east. Only two dates in that time period recorded east winds: Nov. 13, 1872 and Jan. 25, 1873.
Olson combined his previous research with the knowledge that bad weather was more prevalent in January than November in that part of France, he determined that Monet painted the scene in 1872.
"It is pretty clear that Monet started from observations from his hotel window during this visit to Le Havre, but then he showed his artistic genius by expressing emotional content that goes beyond literal depictions," says Olson. "Knowing the details of the harbor scene in this painting only increases our admiration of the artist's skill in depicting this sunrise."