In Monet’s Impressionist paintings, the study says, this dreamy haze is air pollution

Claude Monet is best known for his 1901 painting of Charing Cross Bridge in London. A new study says that the blurry lines may have been inspired by air pollution. (Video: Getty Images/J. Paul Getty Museum)


Claude Monet was “terrified.” He looked outside and saw a sight across the London landscape that unnerved him: no fog, clear skies.

“Not even a speck of haze,” he wrote in a March 4, 1900 letter to his wife, Alice, while the French painter was visiting London. “I was prostrate, and I could see all my drawings for her.”

Then he writes in translated letters Shared by the Tate Art Museum, The fires were gradually lit up, and the smoke and haze of industrial pollution returned to the sky. His work continued.

New study Posted Tuesday In Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, he analyzes changes in style and color in nearly 100 paintings by Impressionist painters Monet and Joseph Mallord William (JMW) Turner, who lived during the industrial revolution in Western Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries. The study found that over time, as industrial air pollution increased throughout Turner and Monet’s work, the skies in their paintings also became more hazy.

“Impressionist painters are known to be very sensitive to changes in light and changes in the environment,” said atmospheric scientist Anna Lea Albright, lead author of the study. “It makes sense that they would be very sensitive not only to some kind of natural changes in the environment, but also to man-made changes.”

The early industrial revolution changed the lives and skies of London and Paris, the birthplace of painters, in unprecedented ways. Coal-burning plants increased employment but clouded the atmosphere with harmful pollutants, such as sulfur dioxide.

Much of the change is evident in the United Kingdom, which emitted nearly half of global sulfur dioxide emissions from 1800-1850; London accounted for about 10 percent of the UK’s emissions. Paris industrialized more slowly but still saw notable increases in sulfur dioxide in the atmosphere after 1850.

Air pollutants can dramatically change the appearance of a landscape, in ways visible to the naked eye. Aerosols can absorb and scatter radiation from the sun. Radiation scattering reduces contrast between distinct objects, making them more compact. They also scatter visible light at all wavelengths, resulting in whiter tones and more intense light during the day.

One of Britain’s most prolific painters, Turner witnessed the dramatic developments in his life firsthand – he was born in the age of sail in 1775 and died in the age of steam and coal in 1851.

In one of his most famous works, “Rain, Steam, and Speed ​​- The Great Western Railway,” he was painting a train of the time The latest engineering marvel that allowed People traveling at unprecedented speeds are about to run over a rabbit, Britain’s fastest mammal. However, it can be almost difficult to discern the details in the painting—mist and haze obscure much of the painting, which underscores the increasing air pollution.

The blur in this painting wasn’t a fluke or a one-time accident, according to the study. The team examined 60 paintings by Turner from 1796 to 1850 and 38 paintings by Monet from 1864 to 1901. Using a mathematical model, they looked at how sharp the outlines of the objects were compared to the background. Low contrast means more serious conditions. They also looked at the intensity of the haze by measuring the albedo level; Whiter hues generally indicate denser haze.

The researchers found that about 61 percent of the contrast changes in the panels largely tracked with increasing SO2 concentrations over that time period. (They also found a trend in whiter hues, but put less emphasis on these findings because the pigments in the paintings themselves may fade over time.)

The visual transitions are stark.

in turner”Apulia in search of Apollos, which he painted in 1814, the sharper edges and clear skies are easily discernible. In “Rain, Steam and Speed ​​- The Great Western Railroad” painted 30 years later, misty skies dominate. During that time, sulfur dioxide emissions doubled.

The beginning of Monet’s career is also different from its end. for him “Saint-Adresse” in 1867 sharply contrasts withHouses of ParliamentThe series, which began around 1899, when he spent time on and off in London for several months.

The team also evaluated visibility, the distance over which an object can be clearly seen. Visibility in Turner’s paintings of clear skies and clouds before 1830 averaged 25 kilometers but decreased to 10 kilometers after 1830. In many of Monet’s paintings Charing Crossbridge , it was estimated that the farthest visible object was about 1 kilometer away.

“Impressionism is often contrasted with realism, but our findings highlight that Turner and Monet’s Impressionist works also capture a certain reality,” said co-author Peter Hebers, a climate scientist and professor at Harvard University. “Specifically, Turner and Monet seem to have realistically shown how sunlight travels through smoke and clouds.”

Some might argue that Turner and Monet’s painting style has just changed over the decades, giving rise to what we now call Impressionist art. But the researchers also analyzed contrast and intensity in 18 other paintings by four other Impressionist artists (James Whistler, Gustave Caillebotte, Camille Pissarro and Berthe Morisot) in London and Paris. And they found the same results: Visibility in the paintings decreased as outdoor air pollution increased.

“When different artists are exposed to similar environmental conditions, they paint in more similar ways,” said Albright, of the École Normale Superior in Paris, “even if it happened at different points in history.”

In addition, Monet’s letters to his wife during his stay in London provide additional convincing evidence that he was keenly aware of the environmental changes around him. In some letters he even laments the absence of new industries to arouse his creativity: “Everything is as if dead, no train, no smoke, no boat, nothing a little livelier”.

Art historian James Rubin, who was not involved in the research, said the study was remarkable for its analysis of pigments and the evolution of fading.

“The study … provides an empirical basis for what art historians have observed,” said Rubin, a professor of art history at Stony Brook University, State University of New York. “These artists were definitely interested and were in a period of changing atmosphere.”

Rubin adds that both artists drew inspiration from the surrounding environmental changes but certainly from different perspectives. To sum it up: Turner was generally an anti-modernist. Monet was willing to celebrate modernity, which he refers to as change.

For example, Rubin said it is now generally understood that “Rain, Steam and Speed ​​- The Great Western Railroad” is not a celebration of new technology.

“Anyone who thinks of what a train looks like can see that it is nothing but an oven on wheels,” he said. “A lot of people are afraid of how fast these motors can go – about 35 miles per hour.”

In contrast, Monet enjoyed the aesthetic effects of sunlight bouncing off clouds in polluted air and “celebrating the modern spectacle of change,” in Robin’s words.

Pictures of environmental or meteorological changes in paintings are not new. Some meteorologists argue with Edvard Munch “The Scream” It depicts polar stratospheric clouds. Some have been accurately identified “Moonrise” by Vincent van Gogh At 9:08 PM on July 13, 1889, in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, France. Turner’s other paintings accurately depicted sunsets during volcanic eruptions, which appear redder due to scattering in the aerosol-laden stratosphere.

Atmospheric scientist Fred Pratta, who I analyzed meteorology In Munch’s The Scream, he says that this study reinforces his view “that art and science are much more connected than most people think.”

Albright said that, as far as she knows, this study is “the first to look at human changes in the environment and how artists can capture that in painting on canvas” and across time.

Albright said that the artists and others who lived at the time in London and Paris “were aware of the changes in air pollution and really got involved with those changes”. “Maybe this could be a kind of parallel today of how society responds and how artists respond to these unprecedented changes that we’re going through,” she said.

Leave a Comment