Claude Monet is recognized as the father of Impressionism for his sublime work depicted in his paintings that portray nature. But in addition to his renowned landscapes full of flowers, his paintings seem to have captured one of the most concerning current issues; air pollution.
Impressionist Mist or Air Pollution?
The climate physicist Anna Lea Albright was strolling peacefully through the Museum of London when suddenly she discovered that some paintings by Monet and other painters such as J. M. W. Turner seemed incredibly familiar to her. It was then that she realized that the characteristic way that painters wrap their landscapes in mist reminded her of her research on air pollution.
She immediately wondered if the pollution present in the air in France in the late 19th and early 20th centuries could have made a significant difference in the work of the most recognized landscape artists, such as Claude Monet. After all, this is the period when the Industrial Revolution began to flood the atmosphere with carbon emissions.
To understand how much realism there is in Impressionism, Albright worked hand in hand with climatologist Peter Huybers from Harvard University, who is an expert in reconstructing pollution levels before there were records on air quality.
Together they analyzed around 130 paintings by Claude Monet, J.M.W. Turner, and other 19th-century artists. Surprisingly, they discovered that, through their works of art, it is possible to appreciate the evolution of their cities undergoing modernization.
Some Impressionist paintings have a characteristic feature of thick low-contrast fog with whiter tones that create a hazy atmosphere. Albright wondered if the deliberate intention of the painters to portray this type of atmosphere was due to a distinctive touch of Impressionism or rather because they were depicting changing cities due to air pollution.
Cities Progressing Towards Modernization
To answer this question, both scientists developed a mathematical model capable of analyzing the contrast and color of 60 Turner paintings between 1796 and 1850, as well as 38 artworks by Claude Monet between 1864 and 1901. They then compared the results with estimates of sulfur dioxide emissions for each century in London and Paris. It is known that when sulfur dioxide reacts with atmospheric molecules, it tends to form aerosols like those we currently see in polluted cities.
Turner lived a century before Monet; however, the levels of pollution in England are not comparable to those of France in similar years. According to history, France had a much slower start to the Industrial Revolution than England, so the level of air pollution that Paris reached around 1870 was similar to that of London when Turner began painting in the early 19th century.
In other words, the similar progression in painting styles proves that it is guided by the appearance of the atmosphere due to air pollution and not random hazy styles.
“Our results indicate that [19th century] paintings capture changes in the optical environment associated with increasingly polluted atmospheres during the industrial revolution,” write the researchers.
The scientists also included other factors to analyze the influence of air pollution on the works of art. Visibility was one of the key pieces, that is, the distance at which an object can be observed. According to their findings, up until before 1830, visibility in Turner’s works averaged about 25 kilometers away. In contrast, in later paintings after 1830, visibility fell to an average of 10 kilometers.
Thanks to the data found, they were able to conclude that air pollution is already present in the most important works of Impressionism, and as proof of this are the paintings made by Monet during his visit to London around 1900, which have a visibility of fewer than five kilometers, a significant difference with his earlier Parisian work. The Impressionists were portraying pollution and it was not necessarily an intrinsic aesthetic in their styles.
Story written in Spanish by Alejandra Martínez in Ecoosfera.