Did Air Pollution Influence Famous Impressionist Painters?

Artists like Turner and Monet painted the smog they saw in London and Paris, a new study says

Rain, Steam and Speed
The hazy quality of works like Turner's Rain, Steam and Speed (1844) was influenced by air pollution, a new study says. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

J.M.W. Turner’s painting Apullia in Search of Appullus (1814) depicts a landscape in rich detail, with bridges, trees and people all clearly defined on the canvas. On the other hand, Rain, Steam and Speed (1844) is a cornucopia of color with loosely defined boundaries.

For atmospheric scientist Anna Lea Albright, based at École Normale Supérieure in Paris, this contrast sparked a question and eventually a study, which was published late last month in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Could the Impressionists have been depicting air pollution during the Industrial Revolution?

Albright, the study’s lead author, and co-author Peter Huybers, a climate scientist at Harvard, analyzed 60 paintings by Turner and 38 by Claude Monet of landmarks in London and Paris. But what exactly were they looking for?

“Low contrast and whiter hues are hallmarks of the Impressionist style. They are also hallmarks of air pollution, which can affect how a distant scene looks to the naked eye,” writes Science News’ Bas den Hond.

Using benchmark photographs taken under clear and polluted conditions, the researchers created a “metric for contrast” that they would apply to the paintings. They then checked their data against estimated historical levels of pollution. Their resulting analysis showed that air pollution levels correlated with “hazier contours and a whiter color palette.”

“These results indicate that Turner and Monet’s paintings capture elements of the atmospheric environmental transformation during the Industrial Revolution,” the researchers write.

Theories have bounced around the art history world to explain this very phenomenon, including the idea that Turner’s and Monet’s eyesight might have worsened as they aged. This new explanation provides a data-driven alternative.

Apullia in Search of Appullus
Works like Turner's Apullia in Search of Appullus (1814) feature elements that are clearly defined. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

The study is also starting a conversation about Impressionism itself, and whether the findings change our understanding of the movement.

“Impressionism is often contrasted with realism, but our results highlight that Turner and Monet’s impressionistic works also capture a certain reality,” Huybers tells the Washington Post’s Kasha Patel. “Specifically, Turner and Monet seem to have realistically shown how sunlight filters through smoke and clouds.”

The idea that these Impressionist icons were simply painting what they saw has drawn criticism. In the Washington Post, art critic Sebastian Smee warns against “confus[ing] internal creative choices with external stimuli.”

He acknowledges that the connection between pollution and the work of Impressionists exists—though it has been raised before. Still, he worries that putting too much stock in this explanation undercuts the creative variance of Monet and Turner. What should we make of Monet’s famous waterlilies, blurred and obfuscated even though he painted them 50 miles northwest of Paris?

“Monet wasn’t a recording machine. He was a painter emerging from a long tradition,” writes Smee.

In some ways, the study’s authors agree. They argue that air pollution can only explain a portion of the contrast differences. Albright tells Science News, “Different painters will paint in a similar way when the environment is similar. But I don’t want to overstep and say: Oh, we can explain all of Impressionism.”

Whether the truth lies with Albright or Smee or somewhere in the middle, one thing is for certain: Europe was undergoing tremendous changes during the Industrial Revolution in the 18th and 19th centuries. Turner and Monet were born amidst such unprecedented changes, and they would have noticed as clear skies turned to hazy ones.

In the future, the researchers want to study how pollution and climate change affect the work of today’s artists. As Huybers tells Hyperallergic’s Elaine Velie, “I think it’s really interesting to look at how people depict their environment—and how environment influences what we choose to observe.”

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