Monet’s paintings travel through the history of pollution

According to a new study, published by scientists from the Sorbonne University and Harvard University, Monet’s paintings could be an excellent indicator of how environmental pollution evolved during the Industrial Revolution.

It is quite interesting, because you can see how in his first paintings it is easy to distinguish the sky from the rest of the landscape. However, as the years go by, these borders become more and more blurred. The image becomes blurry and even the cooler, less vibrant colors.

This is something that happens with Monet’s paintings, but also by other painters. In fact, the study authors recently published in PNASThey also analyze those of another great artist, the Englishman Joseph Mallord William Turner. The latter, moreover, not only reflected environmental pollution. He also showed other phenomena of the time, such as the eruption of a famous volcano. All this constitutes what researchers have dubbed contaminated realism.

The fog in Monet’s paintings

To carry out this study, its authors analyzed 38 paintings by Monet painted between 1864 and 1901 and 60 by Turner, made between 1796 and 1850. We must remember that the Industrial Revolution lasted from 1760 to 1840, although it was in the years after the its completion when its effects began to become much more intense.

All of Turner’s works analyzed depicted scenes from places in England. However, Monet’s were located in both London and Paris. England and France were countries in which the Industrial Revolution had a great weight. However, it is mainly in London where the greatest effects can be seen, due to that famous fog, or smog, so characteristic.

The authors of the study not only analyzed the paintings, but also searched for meteorological records of the time and letters from the painters. Thus, they could see, for example, that the French painter complained in his letters on days when there was no fog, since he really enjoyed painting it. These days correspond to moments in which the rain and the wind dissipated this veil of contamination, coming mainly from the coal factories.

Even so, it used to come back, so from a certain moment it appears in practically all of Monet’s paintings. But there is a very clear turning point, both for him and for Turner. Logically, this occurs in the earliest stages of Monet and in the later stages of English.

Why did the change in Monet’s paintings occur?

Soot particles released from coal factories can absorb and scatter sunlight. This makes colors duller and the edges of objects blur when looking into the distance.

In fact, if you analyze Monet’s paintings, you can see that in some of them the average visibility is very short. In the daytime paintings of London it is about 6 kilometers on average. That is, if compared to the actual landscape that is represented, objects located beyond that distance cannot be clearly distinguished. However, some night paintings are much more confusing. For example, in 1903 he came to represent the Charing Cross bridge with a visibility of about 1 kilometer. It may seem an exaggeration, but the records of the time indicate that, at most, there was a visibility of 2 kilometers.

The volcano that inspired Turner

Volcanic eruptions are also reflected in the colors of many painters’ paintings. In fact, it is believed that the strident and warm colors of Edvard Munch’s famous Scream may be the result of the recent eruption of Krakatoa.

But, in addition, in the case of Turner, there are also paintings that were influenced by the Tambora eruption. This volcano, located in Indonesia, had a huge eruption in 1815, releasing so many particles into the air that the sky turned red. Just then, the Englishman painted some paintings in which that color palette is reflected.

It has nothing to do with the view

The authors of this research have implied that these changes occurred before Monet developed cataracts. Other painters, like Edgar Degas, showed a change in their paintings due to this vision problem. But this does not seem to be the case with Monet’s paintings.

With it, we can simply take a journey through the industrial revolution and the years that followed. A journey through pollution. Perhaps it is the only beautiful thing that can be taken from it.

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