Smoggy air during the Industrial Revolution contributed to the creation of impressionism, inspiring painters such as J.M.W. Turner and Claude Monet to develop new painting styles, according to a new study. Image courtesy of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences
Feb. 4 (UPI) -- Smoggy air during the Industrial Revolution may have contributed to the creation of impressionism, inspiring painters such as J.M.W. Turner and Claude Monet to develop new painting styles, according to a new study.
Before the impressionists revolutionized painting at the advent of the modern art era, painters had largely made renderings of their subjects truer to their realistic appearance -- with smooth brush strokes and the blending of paint.
Painters had largely been inspired by more academic and classical painting styles through the Renaissance, Boroque and Neo-Classical eras with art largely focusing on religious and historical subjects until the movement toward Realism in the early 1800s.
Around this time, artists began to focus their work on more contemporary subjects and depict the daily life of the common people as the Industrial Revolution began and global politics started to change.
The change to looser brush strokes, pastel colors and other stylistic differences that began after the Realism movement has long been attributed to a shift in the stylistic preferences of the artists.
However, a new study published by climate scientists in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences argues that those stylistic changes were inspired by the change in the appearance of the environment in which artists were working.
The researchers explained that aerosols in air pollution lower the visual contrast of the environment because they absorb and scatter radiation "both into and out of a line of sight." Image courtesy of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences
Researchers with Harvard University and Sorbonne University and École Normale Supérieure in Paris focused their study on 60 oil paintings by Turner and 38 works by Monet, who both frequently painted landscapes often in the same locations.
"Turner and Monet's works span the Industrial Revolutions starting in Great Britain in the late 18th century, a time of unprecedented growth in air pollution," the study reads.
"Over the course of their careers, Turner and Monet's painting styles change from sharper to hazier contours and toward a whiter palette, a progression that is typically characterized as moving from a more figurative to impressionistic style."
The researchers explained that aerosols in air pollution lower the visual contrast of the environment because they absorb and scatter radiation "both into and out of a line of sight."
In one figure attached to the study, the researchers showed 27 pairs of photographs of city landmarks on clear days and the same scenes on days with higher levels of air pollution.
"Consistent with our expectations, every polluted photograph has a lower contrast index than its clear-sky counterpart," the study reads.
"The same techniques used for photographs are next applied to evaluate trends in contrast in paintings, which are then evaluated in relation to aerosol emissions over time."
The researchers charted estimates for the annual emissions of sulfur dioxide, which is emitted by the burning of coal, and found that Britain -- where Turner worked -- was responsible for nearly half of all such emissions.
As Turner painted throughout his career, his works progress from sharp to hazier contours and from saturated colors to more pastel-like coloration -- consistent with the changes in air pollution levels in London as the works were made.
"A similar progression is evident across Monet's works," the study reads.
Letters written from Monet indicate that the artist may have intentionally sought out pollution conditions because of his interest in painting more extreme environmental conditions.
The researchers also looked at works by other artists including James Abbott McNeill Whistler, Gustave Caillebotte and Camille Pissarro and identified the same trend.
"Our basic premise is that Impressionism-as developed in the works of Turner, Monet, and others --contains elements of polluted realism. Over the 19th century, the atmospheric reality in London and Paris changed," the study concludes.
"Turner, Monet, and others document these changes in paint, yielding proxy evidence for historical trends in atmospheric pollution before instrumental measurements of air pollution become available."