In Monet’s Impressionist Paintings, That Dreamy Haze Is Air Pollution, Study Says

Claude Monet is well known for his 1901 painting of London’s Charing Cross Bridge. A new study indicates that the blurred outlines may have been inspired by air pollution. (Video: Getty Images / J. Paul Getty Museum)


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

“Not even a shred of mist,” 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 just see all my paintings made for.”

Then, he writes in translated letters shared by the Tate art museum, gradually fires started, and smoke and a haze of industrial pollution returned to the skies. His work continued.

A new study, published Tuesday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, analyzed changes in style and color in nearly 100 paintings by Monet and Joseph Mallord William (JMW) Turner, who are known for their impressionist art and lived during the industrial period of Western Europe. Revolution in the 18th and 19th centuries. The study found that over time, as industrial air pollution increased throughout Turner’s and Monet’s careers, the skies in their paintings also became hazier.

“Impressionist painters are known to be extremely 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 are very sensitive not only to natural changes in the environment, but also to human-induced changes.”

The onset of the Industrial Revolution transformed the life and skies of London and Paris, the birthplaces of painters, in unprecedented ways. Coal factories increased job opportunities but clouded the atmosphere with harmful pollutants, such as sulfur dioxide.

Much of the change is apparent in the UK, which emitted nearly half of the world’s sulfur dioxide emissions from 1800 to 1850; London accounted for around 10% of UK emissions. Paris industrialized more slowly but still experienced notable increases in sulfur dioxide in the atmosphere after 1850.

Air pollutants can greatly alter the appearance of landscapes that are visible to the naked eye. Aerosols can both absorb and scatter solar radiation. The scattering of radiation decreases the contrast between distinct objects, causing them to blend more. Aerosols also scatter visible light of all wavelengths, resulting in whiter hues and more intense light during the day.

Turner, one of Britain’s most prolific painters, witnessed dramatic developments first hand during his lifetime – 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 painted a train, at the time the latest engineering marvel that allowed people to travel at unprecedented speeds, about to run over a hare, Britain’s fastest land mammal. The details of the paintwork, however, could almost be difficult to discern – haze and mist obscure much of the paintwork, an underscore of growing air pollution.

The blurring in this painting was not a fluke or a one-time incident, 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 examined the sharpness of the outlines of objects against the background ; less contrast meant blurrier conditions. They also looked at the intensity of the haze by measuring the level of whiteness; whiter hues generally indicated a more intense haze.

The researchers found that about 61% of the contrast changes in the paintings largely followed the increase in sulfur dioxide concentrations over this period. (They also found a trend towards whiter hues, but they put less emphasis on these results because the pigments in the paints themselves might have faded over time.)

The visual transformations are striking.

In Turner’s “Apullia in Search of Appullus”, which he painted in 1814, sharper edges and a clear sky are easily discernible. In “Rain, Steam and Speed ​​- The Great Western Railway”, painted 30 years later, the misty sky dominates. During this period, sulfur dioxide emissions more than doubled.

The beginning of Monet’s career also differs from its end. His 1867 “Holy Address” contrasts sharply with his Houses of Parliament series which began around 1899, when he traveled back and forth to London for several months.

The team also assessed visibility, the distance at which an object can be clearly seen, and found that visibility in Turner’s paintings of clear, cloudy skies before 1830 averaged about 25 kilometers but decreased to 10 kilometers after 1830. In several of Monet’s Charing Cross Bridge paintings, the farthest visible object has been estimated to be around 1 kilometer away.

“Impressionism is often contrasted with realism, but our results highlight that the Impressionist works of Turner and Monet also capture a certain reality,” said co-author Peter Huybers, a climatologist and professor at Harvard University. “Specifically, Turner and Monet seem to have realistically shown how sunlight filters through smoke and clouds.”

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

“When different artists are exposed to similar environmental conditions, they paint more similarly,” said Albright, based at the École Normale Supérieure in Paris, “even though this happens at different times in history.”

In its summary, the study also dismissed a possible theory that Turner and Monet’s eyesight deteriorated as they aged, which could have affected their ability to paint a clear landscape. But Turner painted objects with clear detail in the foreground of the paintings while successfully blurring those in the background, Albright said. Monet also did not develop cataracts until decades after he began his Impressionist paintings.

Ophthalmologists, the authors said in an interview, have also addressed artists’ vision. Michael Marmor, professor of ophthalmology at Stanford, said: “Monet was not myopic; Turner did not have a cataract.

Moreover, Monet’s letters to his wife while living in London provide compelling evidence that he was acutely aware of the environmental changes around him. In some letters, he even deplores the absence of new industries to stimulate his creativity: “Everything is as if dead, no train, no smoke or boat, nothing to excite the verve a little.”

Art historian James Rubin, who was not involved in the research, said the study was fascinating for its analysis of pigments and the progression of blurring.

“The study…provides an empirical basis for what art historians have observed,” said Rubin, who is professor emeritus of art history at Stony Brook University, part of the State University of New York. “These artists were certainly preoccupied with and were in a time of atmospheric change.”

Rubin added that both artists were inspired by surrounding environmental changes, but certainly from different perspectives. He sums it up: Turner was generally anti-modern. Monet was ready to celebrate modernity, which for him meant change.

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

“Anyone who thinks about the appearance of the train can see that it is just a furnace on wheels,” he said. “A lot of people feared how fast these motors could go – around 35 mph.”

By contrast, Monet reveled in the aesthetic effects of sunlight bouncing off clouds in the polluted air and “celebrated the spectacle of modern change”, Rubin said.

Representations of environmental changes or weather in paintings are not new. Some meteorologists claim that Edvard Munch’s “The Scream” depicts polar stratospheric clouds. Some have located Vincent van Gogh’s “Moonrise” at exactly 9:08 p.m. on July 13, 1889, in Saint Rémy de Provence, France. Turner’s other paintings have accurately depicted sunsets during volcanic eruptions, which appear redder due to scattering through the aerosol-laden stratosphere.

Atmospheric scientist Fred Prata, who analyzed meteorology in Munch’s ‘The Scream,’ said the study reinforces his view “that art and science are much more correlated than most people realize.” .

Albright said this study, to his knowledge, is “the first to examine anthropogenic changes in the environment and how artists might capture this in paint on canvas” and across time.

Artists and others living in London and Paris at the time “were aware of the changes in air pollution and were really committed to these changes,” Albright said. “Maybe it could be kind of a parallel to today how society and how artists are responding to these unprecedented changes that we’re going through,” she said.

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