Mystical fog in Monet’s paintings? Study Says It’s Air Pollution After All | Pollution

Claude Monet was “terrified”. He looked out the window and saw a scene in the London landscape that worried him: no fog, clear skies. “Not a bit of fog,” he wrote in a March 4, 1900 letter to his wife, Alice, while the French painter was visiting London. “I was perplexed, and I could only see all my finished paintings.”

Then, as he wrote in letters translated by the Tate Modern, fires gradually flared up, and smoke and haze from industrial pollution returned to the skies. His work continued.

A new study, published on the 31st of January in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, analyzed the changes in style and color in almost 100 paintings by Claude Monet and Joseph Mallord William Turner, who are known for their impressionist art and who lived during the Industrial Revolution of Western Europe in the 20th century. XVIII and XIX. The study found that as air pollution increased throughout Turner’s and Monet’s careers, the skies in their works also grew hazier.

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

transform the sky

The onset of the Industrial Revolution transformed the lives and skies of London and Paris, the hometowns of painters, in ways never seen before. Coal-burning factories increased employment opportunities, but darkened the atmosphere with harmful pollutants such as sulfur dioxide.

Much of the change is noticeable in the UK, which emitted nearly half of global sulfur dioxide emissions from 1800 to 1850; London accounted for around 10 per cent of UK emissions. The industrialization of Paris was slower, but the increase in sulfur dioxide in the atmosphere was notable after 1850.

Air pollutants can alter significantly, shapes visible to the eye naked, the appearance of landscapes. Aerosols can both absorb and scatter solar radiation. Radiation scattering decreases the contrast between different objects, making them blend together more. Aerosols also scatter visible light of all wavelengths, which produces whiter hues and brighter light during the day.

Turner, one of Britain’s most prolific painters, witnessed the dramatic developments first-hand during his lifetime – he was born in 1775, in the age of sail, and died in the age of steam and coal, in 1851.

Sainte-Adresse (1867) CLAUDE MONET
Courtesy of National Gallery of Art

In one of his most famous works, Rain, Steam and Speed ​​– The Great Western Railway, painted a train, the last marvel of engineering that allowed people to travel at unprecedented speeds, about to run over a hare, Britain’s fastest land mammal. However, the details of the painting can be almost difficult to discern – mist and fog obscure much of the work, highlighting the growing air pollution.

According to the study, the cloudiness in this picture was not a casual or one-off incident. The team examined 60 works by Turner from 1796 to 1850 and 38 works by Monet from 1864 to 1901. Using a mathematical model, they compared the sharpness of objects’ outlines against the background; less contrast meant more haze. They also looked at haze intensity by measuring white levels; whiter hues generally indicate a more intense haze.

The investigators found that about 61 percent of the changes in the works’ contrast accompanied the increase in sulfur dioxide concentration over that time period. They also found a trend towards the use of whiter tones, but placed less emphasis on these results, as the pigments in the paintings themselves may have faded over time.

Visual transformations are accentuated

In Turner’s work Apullia in Search of Apullus, from 1814, the sharpest edges and a clear sky are notorious. In Rain, Steam and Speed ​​– The Great Western Railway, painted 30 years later, dominate the cloudy skies. During that time, sulfur dioxide emissions more than doubled.

The beginning of Monet’s career also diverges from its end. The work Garden in Sainte-Adresse, of 1867, contrasts sharply with the series Houses of Parliament, which began around 1899, when he spent time in and out of London over several months.

The team also assessed visibility, the distance at which an object can be clearly seen, and found that visibility in Turner’s clear skies and in hazy paintings before 1830 was roughly around 25 kilometers, but decreases to 10 kilometers. after 1830. In various works on Charing Cross Bridge, it is estimated that the farthest visible object was about a kilometer away.

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

Perhaps, some might argue, Turner and Monet’s painting style changed over the decades, giving rise to what we now call Impressionist art. But the researchers also looked at 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. They found the same results: visibility in paintings decreased as air pollution increased.

“When different artists are exposed to similar environmental conditions, they paint in more similar ways,” said Albright, based at the École Normale Supérieure in Paris, “even if that happens at different points in history.”

Older, could they just be seeing worse?

In its summary, the study also addresses the possible theory that Turner’s and Monet’s eyesight got worse as they got older, which could affect their ability to paint a clear landscape. But Turner painted objects in great detail in the works’ foreground while blurring those in the background, Albright said. Monet didn’t develop cataracts until decades after he started Impressionist paintings.

There were ophthalmologists, the authors said in an interview, who also evaluated the artists’ eyesight. Michael Marmor, Professor of Ophthalmology at Stanford, said: “Monet was not myopic; Turner did not have cataracts.”

Additionally, Monet’s letters to his wife while living in London provide convincing evidence that he was keenly aware of the changing environment around him. In some letters, Monet even laments the absence of new industries to light his creativity: “Everything is as dead: no trains, no smoke or boats, nothing to excite the imagination a little.”

inspiration in change

James Rubin, an art historian who was not involved in this study, finds the research fascinating for its analysis of pigments and blur progression.

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

Rubin added that both artists drew inspiration from the changing environment around them, but certainly from different perspectives. The historian sums it up: Turner was generally anti-modern. Monet was ready to celebrate modernity, which, for him, signaled change.

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

“Anyone who thinks about the appearance of the convoy can see that it is nothing more than a furnace on wheels,” he added. “Many people feared the speed at which these devices could travel — at around 56 km/hour.”

In contrast, Monet praises the aesthetic effects of light reflecting off clouds in polluted air and “celebrates the spectacle of modern change”, according to Rubin.

In The Scream until the starry night

Paintings depicting environmental and meteorological changes are not something new. Some meteorologists argue that The Scream, by Edvard Munch, illustrates stratospheric polar clouds. Some tick The Starry Night, by Van Gogh, at exactly 9:08 pm on July 13, 1889, in Saint Rémi Provence, France. Other works by Turner accurately represent sunsets that occurred during volcanic eruptions, which appear redder due to dispersion through the aerosol-laden stratosphere.

Fred Prata, atmospheric scientist, who analyzed the meteorology of The Scream, de Munch, said this study reinforces his view that “art and science are much more intertwined than most people believe.”

Albright says that this study, in his opinion, is “the first to look at anthropogenic changes in the environment and how artists may have captured it in painting on canvas” and over time.

Artists and others living at this time in London and Paris “were aware of changes in air pollution and involved in those changes,” said Albright. “Maybe it could be a species in parallel with the way in which society and artists today respond to these unprecedented changes that we are experiencing”, he added.

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