In a letter to his wife in March 1901, pioneering French painter Claude Monet lamented the bad weather that prevented him from working, as well as another conspicuous impediment to his creativity.
“I work on air pollution and while seeing Turner, Whistler and Monet paintings at Tate in London and Musée d’Orsay in Paris, I noticed stylistic transformations in their works,” said Anna Lea Albright, a postdoctoral researcher for Le Laboratoire de Météorologie Dynamique at Sorbonne University in Paris, in a phone interview. Albright coauthored the study with Peter Huybers, a professor of Earth and planetary sciences at Harvard University.
“The contours of their paintings became hazier, the palette appeared whiter and the style changed from more figurative to more impressionistic: Those changes accord with physical expectations of how air pollution influences light,” she added.
The team looked at over 100 paintings by Monet and British painter Joseph Mallord William Turner, who was active before Monet, with the goal of finding an empirical basis to the hypothesis that the paintings capture increasingly polluted skies during the Industrial Revolution.
The focus was on these two artists because they prolifically painted landscapes and cityscapes, often with repeated motifs, according to the study authors.
A visual chronicle of atmospheric change
“In general, air pollution makes objects appear hazier, makes it harder to identify their edges, and gives the scene a whiter tint, because pollution reflects visible light of all wavelengths,” Albright said.
The team looked for these two metrics, edge strength and whiteness, in the paintings — by converting them into mathematical representations based on brightness — and then compared the results with independent estimates of historical air pollution.
A woman walks through a Claude Monet exhibition at the Staedel Museum in Frankfurt, Germany, in 2015. Paintings (L-R): “Waterloo Bridge, Sonne,” “Waterloo Bridge, Nebelmorgen” and “Charing Cross Bridge.” Credit: Boris Roessler/picture alliance/Getty Images/FILE
“We found that there was a surprisingly good match,” Albright said.
The paintings chronicle the historical changes in the atmospheric environment, according to the researchers, and particularly the rise in emissions of sulfur dioxide, a coal-derived pollutant that causes acid rain and respiratory issues. The connection goes beyond artistic evolution and style, they note, because London and Paris, where Turner and Monet were respectively based, industrialized at different times and at different rates, which is reflected in the works.
Further proof, according to Albright, comes from the artists’ backgrounds, specifically Turner’s interest in the growing scientific understanding of the sky at the time, and Monet’s letters, highlighting the influence of air pollution on his creativity. In another one, he tells his wife he was “terrified” by the lack of fog, but was comforted when “the fires were lit and the smoke and haze came back.”
Science vs. style
“When I saw the study, I was delighted because it really suggests a vindication of what I had been writing about almost two decades ago, which was that air pollution is a significant contextual factor for some 19th century paintings,” Ribner said in a phone interview.
“Turner and Monet are both artists who had to go to places to see certain conditions,” he added. “There was this phenomenon of fog tourism, where French visitors like Monet went to London deliberately to see the fog, because they loved the atmospheric effects. He didn’t like it when the fog was so thick that he just couldn’t see anything, but he hated it when there was no fog and it was blue skies, because it didn’t look like London. Apparently he destroyed some of those canvases with a clear sky.”
A painting by J.M.W. Turner titled “Rain, Steam and Speed — the Great Western Railway” in an exhibition at the Tate Britain gallery in 2014 in London, England. Credit: Oli Scarff/Getty Images/FILE
Regarding that point of view, Albright said it was never the intention of the study to discount any art historical approach, or reduce the paintings to just a number or a scientific analysis, but rather to expand the understanding and the appreciation of these works by offering another angle from which to study them.
“What I think is really wonderful about these works is that Monet creates beautiful atmospheric effects from something as ugly and dirty as smoke and soot,” she added.
Top image: A woman poses by a painting of the Houses of Parliament by French artist Claude Monet during a 2017 preview for the exhibition “French Artists in Exile” at Tate Britain in London.