Claude Monet’s painting Houses of Parliament, Sunlight in the Fog (1904).
Claude Monet was fascinated by the smog of turn-of-the-century London, an atmosphere reflected in his 1904 painting of the Houses of Parliament. Credit: Musée d’Orsay

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Impressionist painters of the 19th century were famous for capturing the vitality of a scene and the fleeting nature of light, rather than meticulously reproducing every detail in a composition. But a new study presented at AGU’s Fall Meeting 2022 suggests that trends toward hazier contours and whiter palettes found in works by J. M. W. Turner and Claude Monet may, in fact, be accurate representations of optical effects associated with air pollution.

The Impressionists (influenced by Turner and exemplified by Monet) were interested in contemporary scientific advances, and they often painted outdoors to capture the world in its true light. But their color palettes and painting techniques—visible brushstrokes with minimal representations of form—have been largely attributed to stylistic choice. The new research, led by Anna Lea Albright at the Laboratory of Dynamic Meteorology at Sorbonne University and École normale supérieure, suggests that Impressionists may have been more faithful to meteorological reality than we assumed.

AGU Fall Meeting 2022: Science Leads the Future

The study focused on Turner and Monet, iconic artists who frequently painted serialized cityscapes in London and Paris, urban areas that experienced increasing air pollution during the Industrial Revolution. “We don’t want to say these artists were just instruments passively recording their environment, that would diminish their obvious creative genius. The key idea is that change to the environment provided new creative impulses, new ways of seeing,” said Albright, who did the research with Peter Huybers, a professor of Earth and planetary sciences at Harvard University.

London Becomes “the Big Smoke”

Albright and Huybers first estimated air pollution levels during the periods when Turner and Monet were most active. Given that routine air quality monitoring began only in the mid-20th century, the researchers used fuel inventories as a proxy.

In Britain, the Industrial Revolution was gathering steam by the 1830s. Sulfur dioxide (SO2) produced by burning coal was polluting the air, particularly in London, where concentrations increased throughout the 19th century. In Paris, SO2 levels climbed only in the latter half of the 19th century, and peak levels were never as bad as those in London.

Pollution is known to affect visibility at street level, so Albright’s group used image analysis to assess the clarity and color palette in Turner’s and Monet’s paintings. The researchers’ technique began by taking a high-resolution photo of a painting and converting it to a matrix—essentially a set of numbers corresponding to different colors. They then used mathematical wavelet analysis to determine how sharp the edges are between colors at different scales. Color models helped determine the images’ “haziness.”

The researchers assessed 60 oil paintings by Turner spanning the years 1796–1850 and 38 paintings by Monet dating from 1864 to 1901, after first calibrating the technique using photos of present-day cities in both clear and polluted conditions.

As pollution levels rose, the styles of both artists evolved from more clearly demarcated shapes toward blurrier edges and whiter color palettes. This trend was consistent even after the researchers accounted for factors such as subject and time of day. The same model found similar trends in paintings of London and Paris by other artists, including Camille Pissarro, James McNeill Whistler, and Gustave Caillebotte.

“Turner was born in the Age of Sail, and he died in the age of coal and steam,” said Albright, who believes industrialization influenced not only what Turner painted but also how he painted it. She said this influence is perhaps best illustrated in Rain, Steam, and Speed (1844), a frenetic scene featuring a train crossing a bridge in a golden landscape, with a hare darting along the track.

J.M.W. Turner’s painting Rain, Steam, and Speed (1844)
J. M. W. Turner’s Rain, Steam, and Speed (1844) may be a reflection of increasing air pollution in the United Kingdom as well as a stylistic precursor to Impressionism. Credit: The National Gallery (UK), CC BY-NC-ND 4.0

Monet, the Smog Seeker

Monet’s early paintings were traditionally figurative. His style became increasingly Impressionistic as the locations in which he was painting became increasingly polluted.

Albright says Monet’s work, completed generations after Turner, may actually represent an amplified version of real pollution trends because the French artist was known to seek out the London smog for his ethereal paintings of the Houses of Parliament and other landmarks.

“Artistic and literary sources give clues about social perceptions that are not available in simple measurements.”

Peter Brimblecombe, an environmental scientist at the University of East Anglia and author of The Big Smoke, said some measurements of air and rainfall composition had been taken in London from the mid-1800s, but painters and writers can help to fill in sporadic gaps in the record. “Artistic and literary sources give clues about social perceptions that are not available in simple measurements,” said Brimblecombe, who was not involved in the new study.

Donald Olson, who earned the nickname the “celestial sleuth” for investigating art mysteries using astronomical data, agreed. “Knowing the details of the place, the date, the time, the weather, and the sky conditions when artists created their artworks provides the opportunity for an imaginative experience,” said Olson, an astrophysicist at Texas State University who was not involved in the new research. “The science brings the modern reader closer to the moment of creation or to the person they admire.”

Albright would like to develop the scope of her research by looking at the influence of pollution on contemporary art in megacities such as Beijing and Delhi. She also said that as image analysis technologies improve, they could help to estimate pollution levels from images and video footage, providing complementary data for locations where direct air monitoring is not available.

—James Dacey (@JamesDacey), Science Writer

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Citation: Dacey, J. (2022), Were Impressionist masters painting a polluted reality?, Eos, 103, Published on 12 December 2022.
Text © 2022. The authors. CC BY-NC-ND 3.0
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