The 19th-century paintings hanging in London’s Tate Britain in the physics museum of Anne Lea Albright’s climate looked intensely familiar. Artist Joseph Mallord William Turner’s signature road seen in fog and flying smoke reminded Albright of his own research on air pollution.
“I began to wonder if there was a connection,” said Albright, who had spent the day visiting the dynamic Museum of Meteorology in Paris. After all, Turner – the forerunner of the Impressionist movement – painted as Britain’s industrial revolution gathered steam, and the growing number of belching factories in London earned the nickname “The Big Smoke”.
Turner’s early works, such as his 1814 painting “Apulia on the Appalachians,” are rendered in sharp detail. After these works, like his celebrated 1844 painting “Rain, Steam and Speed - The Great Western Railway,” he embraced a dreamier, fuzzier aesthetic.
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Perhaps, Albright thought, this camouflaged style of painting was not a purely artistic phenomenon. Perhaps Turner and his successors painted exactly what they saw: surrounded by an increasingly darkened shroud of smoke.
To find out how much realism there is in impressionism, Albright teamed up with Harvard University climatologist Peter Huybers, who was previously an expert on pollution reconstruction tools, to closely investigate air quality. Their analysis of nearly 130 paintings by Turner, Paris-based impressionist Claude Monet and several others told about two modern cities.
Low contrast and white color are the hallmarks of impressionist style. There are also signs of air pollution that can affect how a remote scene looks to the naked eye. Tiny air particles, or aerosols, absorb or scatter light. The bright parts of the objects appear darker, while the color of the whole scene also turns to neutral white.
The techniques that Albright and Huybers researched, which span the period from the 1700s to the early 1900s, decline, and contrast with the 19th century. That trend with increasing air pollution, estimated from historical records of coal sales, Albright and Huyber, on Dec. 7 Journal of the Academy of Sciences.
“Our results indicate” [19th century] “painted paintings capture changes in the optical environment associated with a more polluted atmosphere during the industrial revolution,” the researchers write.
Albright and Huybers distinguished art from aerosol by first using a mathematical model to analyze the contrast and color of 60 paintings made by Turner between 1796 and 1850 as well as 38 Monet works from 1864 to 1901. They then compared the emissions of sulfur dioxide they found. the century, estimate from the trend in the annual amount of coal sold and burned in London and Paris. When sulfur dioxide reacts with molecules in the atmosphere, aerosols are formed.
As sulfur dioxide emissions increased over time, the amount of contrast in both Turner’s and Monet’s paintings decreased. However, the Paris paintings that Monet made from 1864 to 1872 have a much higher contrast than Turner’s London paintings made two decades earlier.
The crisis, Albright and Huybers say, can be attributed to the much slower start of the industrial revolution in France. Air pollution in Paris around 1870 was about the same level as London when Turner was painting in the early 1800s. It confirms that a similar development in painting styles cannot be chalked up to coincidence, but can be concluded to be driven by air pollution.
Researchers also resolve the visibility of pictures, or the distance to which an object can be seen. Before 1830, the visibility of Turner’s painting averaged about 25 kilometers, the team discovered. Paintings made after 1830 had an average visibility of about 10 kilometers. Paintings made by Monet in London around 1900, such as “Caring Cross Bridge”, have a visibility of less than five kilometers. This is similar to current megacities like Delhi and Beijing, Albright and Huybers say.
To support their argument, the researchers also analyzed 18 paintings from four other London- and Paris-based impressions. Again, as outdoor air pollution increased over time, the contrast and visibility in the pictures decreased, pain is found. What appears to have been more decrepit in the French paintings after the British decre-ones were seen to be lax.
Overall, air pollution can explain about 61 percent of the discrepancy between the pictures, the researchers calculate. At this point, “different painters paint in a similar way when the environment is similar,” says Albright. “But I don’t want to go overboard and say: Oh, we can all explain impressionism.”
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