Impressionist artists such as Claude Monet and Joseph Mallord William (JMW) Turner are famous for their blurred, dreamlike paintings. However, a new study finds that what these European painters really represented in their works was not a figment of their imaginations, but an environmental disaster: air pollution.
Scientists examined around 100 artworks by the two Impressionist painters who dominated the art scene during the Industrial Revolution between the mid-18th and early 20th centuries. The team discovered that what some art enthusiasts had long thought was Monet and Turner’s painting style was that they “captured changes in the visual environment” that accompanied deteriorating air quality as coal-burning plants began to encroach on European cities coat and spew pollutants into the air, according to the study, published Jan. 31 in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (opens in new tab).
“It is often said that Turner was born in the age of sail and died in the age of steam and coal – his life spans a period of unprecedented environmental change,” first author Anna Lea Albright (opens in new tab), an atmospheric scientist at the Laboratory for Dynamic Meteorology in France, told Live Science in an email. “During the first industrial revolution, this proliferation of air pollution was concentrated in London, known as ‘Big Smoke.’ [where Turner was based]. Monet painted later, in the second industrial revolution, in London and Paris.”
For the study, scientists focused on local sulfur dioxide emissions in London and Paris during this period and how air pollution can interact with light, e.g. B. by reducing the contrast of objects viewed against a background and increasing the intensity or “whiteness” of an image, the study says.
They also found that artists’ vision was not at the root of this trend toward blurry artwork. “Monet was not myopic; Turner had no cataracts,” wrote another group of researchers in a 2016 study published in the journal Eye (opens in new tab).
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“As Turner and Monet’s careers have progressed, I have noticed that the contours of their paintings have become blurred, the palette has become whiter, and the style has shifted from more figurative to impressionistic,” said Albright. “We knew that Turner and Monet were painting during the Industrial Revolution with its unprecedented environmental changes. Her stylistic changes correspond to physical expectations of how air pollution affects light.”
Air pollution is caused when there is an increase in toxic microscopic particles in the atmosphere. The scientists compared air pollution levels in Paris and London during the Industrial Revolution to levels in modern megacities such as Beijing, New Delhi and Mexico City.
“Air pollution absorbs and scatters light, making distant objects look blurry,” Albright explained. “By scattering background light of all wavelengths into the line of sight, the presence of air pollution gives the images a whiter hue.”
These blurred, smeared scenes were then translated into some of Monet and Turner’s most famous paintings, including Monet’s “The Houses of Parliament, sunset (opens in new tab)“(1903) and Turner’s”Rain, Steam and Speed - The Great Western Railway (opens in new tab)‘ (1844).
“Impressionism is often contrasted with realism, but our results show that the Impressionist works of Turner and Monet also capture a certain reality,” said the study’s co-author Peter Huybers (opens in new tab)professor for Earth and Planetary Sciences at Harvard University, Live Science said in an email. “Turner and Monet in particular seem to have shown realistically how sunlight filters through pollution and clouds.
“The idea that Impressionism contains certain elements of contaminated realism underscores how connected we are to our environment,” he added. “Our environment affects what we see, how we feel [and] what we focus on. Perhaps a modern Turner or Monet would help us see other novel phenomena around us, such as: climate change.”