The late 19th century in Europe saw the emergence of the hazy style of the Impressionists, which privileged mood and light over fine details. While this monumental shift has long been attributed to shifting stylistic preferences, a new study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences argues that it was also due to a change in the environment’s appearance: As the Industrial Revolution engulfed London and Paris in smog, the world literally became blurrier.
Climate scientists Anna Lea Albright of the Sorbonne University and École Normale Supérieure in Paris and Peter Huybers of Harvard University researched this phenomenon by focusing mainly on 60 oil paintings by J.M.W. Turner and 38 works by Claude Monet. Both artists were prolific landscape painters who frequently depicted the same places, but their lives also spanned the emergence of high levels of smog in their respective cities. Born in 1775, Turner witnessed the first steam engines and trains arrive in his native England, and 65 years later, Monet was born alongside the subsequent rise of France’s industrial economy. As their careers progressed, the two artists’ environments became smoggier, and both artists’ paintings because hazier and whiter.
Albright and Huybers explain the science behind their hypothesis. Aerosols in pollution reflect light to create environments with higher intensity and less contrast. The world takes on a whiter tint and objects appear less differentiated from one another — just as in the late paintings of Turner and Monet.
The two artists were cognizant of this new smoke engulfing their cities, and Albright and Huybers also argue that pollution “provided a creative impulse” for Turner and Monet.
“We tend to think of pollution in a modern context as something which is utterly negative,” Huybers told Hyperallergic. “But I think there was also a glorification of industry that was occurring and this notion that this coloration and these plume structures were kind of a celebration, or worthy of creating awe, and inspiring.”
Huybers added that even though people in Western Europe today would be horrified at 19th-century pollution levels, he doesn’t glean this attitude from Monet and Turner’s paintings or letters, in which Monet penned lines like “the thing I like best about London is the fog.” (Huybers explained that the word “smog” didn’t emerge until later.)
Another letter Monet wrote in 1900, when he was working on oil sketches of London’s Houses of Parliament from a covered terrace at St. Thomas’ Hospital, read, “I am working very hard, although this morning I really thought the weather had changed completely; when I got up I was terrified to see that there was no fog, not even a wisp of mist: I was prostrate, and could just see all my paintings done for, but gradually the fires were lit and the smoke and haze came back.”
“It’s not a random selection of days,” Albright said. “[The artists] are kind of seeking out the pollution as well, so they might be seeking out the extreme rather than the average conditions.” She explained that in addition to serving as a source of inspiration, high-smog days were also the ones with the least amount of wind and rain, which made them the best for painting outside.
While the two scientists present a compelling case (they found a 61% correlation rate between smog and contrast in the paintings), they also note other hypotheses that could explain Turner and Monet’s artistic shift toward blurred lines and white hues: Was Turner painting bright skies because his society was becoming more and more interested in astronomy? Was Monet blurring his landscapes because he was copying Turner’s style, or because his vision became impaired as he got older?
Although the study centered Turner and Monet, the researchers also examined a handful of paintings from other 19th-century painters — six works by James Abbott McNeill Whistler, seven by Gustave Caillebotte, four by Camille Pissarro, and one by Berthe Morisot — and detected the same trend.
“We’re not trying to reduce these paintings to a number,” Albright said, assuring that the project is meant to provide a “complimentary expanding” of what scholars already know about Impressionism.
Huybers added that he was excited that they had found strong evidence at all. “I don’t think either of us went into this thinking we would actually find something substantial,” he said. “I was really surprised at how strongly the results came out.”
Now that the project is over, Albright and Huybers have a few ideas about what to study next. They are interested in examining how artists depict the environment in contemporary cities with the same high smog levels of 19th-century London and Paris, such as Mexico City, Beijing, and New Delhi. They have also considered how the invisible forces of climate change — such as greenhouse gases — affect how artists render the world around them.
“I think it’s really interesting to look at how people depict their environment and how environment influences what we choose to observe,” Huybers said. “Understanding how the environment actually influences how we feel, how we think, what we focus on, that’s so much of understanding the environment and human condition.”
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