A recent study published by Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) claims to have proven a theory that air pollution inspired the painter Claude Monet to create the hazy, ethereal paintings that sparked the Impressionist movement, according to a report by CNN.
The study focuses on Monet and the British painter Joseph Mallord William Turner, both of whom were active during the Industrial Revolution, which saw steam engines and coal-powered manufacturing plants emit unprecedented amounts of smoke and soot into the air.
A group of researchers studied over 100 paintings by Turner and Monet trying to find empirical evidence that the dreamlike haze that has become a hallmark of Impressionist painting was in fact the artists interpretation of the polluted skies of London and Paris, the cities that both Turner and Monet found most inspiring.
“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,” Anna Lea Albright, a postdoctoral researcher for Le Laboratoire de Météorologie Dynamique at Sorbonne University in Paris and coauthor of the study told CNN. “The contours of their paintings became hazier, the palette appeared wider, and the style changed from more figurative to more impressionistic: Those changes accord with physical expectations of how air pollution influences light.”
According to Albright, air pollution “makes objects appear hazier,” blurs their edges, and because pollution “reflects visible light of all wavelengths,” makes a scene appear whiter. The researchers studied both the hardness of edges and the amount of white in the paintings and compared them those metrics with estimates of air pollution at the time the paintings were executed, between 1796 and 1901.
“We found that there was a surprisingly good match,” Albright told CNN.
The study points out that there is a correlation that goes “beyond artistic evolution and style” because the paintings reflect the differences in the amount of air pollution in London and Paris, which were industrialized at different times. Further proof comes from Monet himself, who in 1901 wrote to his wife, bemoaning a day of bad weather and a lack of the smoke, trains, and boats that “excite the inspiration a little.”
“Turner and Monet are both artists who had to go to places to see certain conditions,” Jonathan Ribner, a professor of European art at Boston University, told CNN. Ribner described a phenomenon he calls “fog tourism” that brought French painters like Monet to London “deliberately to see the fog, because they loved the atmospheric effects.” Ribner was one of the first art histories to theorize that air pollution was an influence on both Monet and Turner.
Despite the evidence, there are some who refuse to believe that the birth of Impressionism can be pegged to ash and soot filling the skies. In the Washington Post, art critic Sebastian Smee railed against the study’s premise that pollution and not creativity explained the two artists’s “stylistic evolution.”
“I’m not arguing that there is no credence to the already well-established idea that Monet was responding to an increasingly polluted environment,” Smee wrote, “I’m just arguing that this latest study’s way of making the case is so full of holes that it strikes me as worthless.”