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.
“Everything is as good as dead, no train, no smoke, no boat, nothing to excite the inspiration a little,” he wrote.
Monet, now celebrated as a founder of Impressionism, was in London during one of three trips he took to the city between 1899 and 1901, which yielded over 100 paintings. His reference to smoke — which would have come abundantly from the steam engines of boats and trains — as a potential creative spark seems to support a theory long held by some art historians about what was behind the distinctive dreamy haze in Monet’s work. Now a recent study by climate scientists has found new evidence to confirm it.
“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 the period covered by the paintings, 1796 to 1901, a huge amount of coal was mined to support industrial manufacturing and steam engines. Britain alone went from producing 2.9 million tons of coal per year in 1700 to 275 million tons by 1900, leading to visible air pollution that caused widespread health problems. The soot from the coal created a thick, dark fog, and the number of foggy days in London rose threefold between 1850 and 1890, from 25 to 75 per year, according to the National Bureau of Economic Research.
“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.
“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
Jonathan Ribner, a professor of European art at Boston University, was among the first art historians to suggest a connection between the two artists’ work and pollution, in a 2004 essay written for “Turner Whistler Monet,” an exhibition of 100 Impressionist paintings that toured Toronto, Paris and London.
“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.”
However, art critic Sebastian Smee has lambasted the study, saying that it confuses “internal creative choices with external stimuli.” He argued that increased pollution can’t be used to explain the artists’ stylistic evolution, and that some of their works are “mythological,” rather than a picture of objective reality.
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.
“He and Turner, they don’t turn away from the pollution, but they were able to transform these negative environmental changes into a source of creative inspiration.”
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.