Air pollution made an impression on Monet and other artists of the 19th century


The landscape paintings of the 19th century hanging in London’s Tate Britain museum seemed very familiar to climate physicist Annie Lee Albright. Artist Joseph Mallord William Turner’s signature way of shrouding his landscapes in fog and smoke reminded Albright of her own research into tracking air pollution.

“I wondered if there was a connection,” says Albright, who visited the museum on a day off from the Laboratory of Dynamic Meteorology in Paris. After all, Turner—a forerunner of the Impressionist movement—was painting as Britain’s Industrial Revolution was gaining momentum, and the growing number of regurgitating factories earned London the nickname “The Great Smoke.”

Turner’s early works, such as his 1814 painting Apulia in Search of Appulus, were depicted in vivid detail. Later works, such as his famous 1844 painting Rain, Steam and Speed ​​- The Great Western Railway, embraced a dreamier, more blurred aesthetic.

Perhaps, Albright thought, this emerging style of painting was not a purely artistic phenomenon. Perhaps Turner and his successors painted exactly what they saw: their surroundings increasingly obscured by a smokestack.

To find out how much realism there is in the impressionism, Albright teamed up with Harvard University climatologist Peter Huybers, who is an expert in reconstructing pollution before tools to accurately track air quality were available. Their analysis of nearly 130 paintings by Turner, Paris Impressionist Claude Monet and several others tells the story of two modernizing cities.

Low contrast and whiter shades are hallmarks of the Impressionist style. They are also signs of air pollution, which can affect how a distant scene looks to the naked eye. Tiny particles in the air or aerosols can absorb or scatter light. This makes the bright parts of the objects dimmer, while shifting the color of the entire scene towards a neutral white.

The artworks that Albright and Huybers examined, which span the late 1700s to the early 1900s, decline as the 19th century progresses. This trend is followed by increases in air pollution estimated from historical coal sales data, Albright and Hubers report in reports of the National Academy of Sciences from February 7.

“Our results show that paintings [19-го століття] reflect changes in the optical environment associated with an increasingly polluted atmosphere during the industrial revolution,” the researchers write.

Albright and Huybers distinguished the art from the aerosol by first using a mathematical model to analyze the contrast and color of 60 paintings that Turner painted between 1796 and 1850, as well as 38 works by Monet from 1864 to 1901. They then compared the results with sulfur dioxide emissions over a century, estimated from the annual trend in the amount of coal sold and burned in London and Paris. When sulfur dioxide reacts with molecules in the atmosphere, aerosols are formed.

Early works by British artist Joseph Mallord William Turner, such as Apulia in Search of Appulus (left), painted in 1814, were displayed in vivid detail. His later works, such as Rain, Steam and Speed ​​- The Great Western Railway (right), painted in 1844, reflected a dreamy aesthetic. Researchers say the decrease in contrast between the paintings is due to increased air pollution from the Industrial Revolution.LEFT: APULIA IN SEARCH OF APPULLA, VIDEO OVIDUS, JOSEPH MELLORD WILLIAM TURNER/TATE COLLECTION ( CC BY-NC-ND 3.0 ); ARCHIVE OF WORLD HISTORY/ALAMY STOCK PHOTO

As sulfur dioxide emissions increased over time, the amount of contrast in Turner’s and Monet’s paintings decreased. However, the paintings of Paris painted by Monet between 1864 and 1872 have a much greater contrast than Turner’s last paintings of London, made two decades earlier.

Albright and Hubers say that this difference can be explained by the much slower start of the industrial revolution in France. Air pollution levels in Paris around 1870 were about the same as in London when Turner began painting in the early 1800s. This confirms that such a progression in their painting styles cannot be considered random, but is driven by air pollution, the pair concluded.

The researchers also analyzed the visibility of the pictures, or the distance at which an object can be clearly seen. The team found that by 1830 visibility in Turner’s paintings averaged about 25 kilometers. Pictures taken after 1830 had an average visibility of about 10 kilometers. Paintings painted by Monet in London around 1900, such as Charing Cross Bridge, have a visibility of less than five kilometers. That’s similar to estimates for modern megacities like Delhi and Beijing, Albright and Huybers say.

To bolster their argument, the researchers also analyzed 18 paintings by four other Impressionists who lived in London and Paris. Again, the team found, as outdoor air pollution increased over time, contrast and visibility in the images decreased. Moreover, the decline seen in French painting lags behind that seen in British painting.

Overall, the researchers estimate that air pollution can explain about 61 percent of the contrast differences between the pictures. In this regard, “different artists will paint in a similar way when the medium is similar,” says Albright. “But I don’t want to go overboard and say, oh, we can explain all impressionism.”

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