New Study Reveals the Reality Behind the Hazy Impressionist Landscapes

Impressionist paintings are distinguished by their hazy, dreamlike outlook. But, what we have been taking as a depiction of dreamy imagination, can actually be far from that in reality! A new study has revealed that the famed European impressionist artists like J.M.W. Turner (Joseph Mallord William Turner) and Claude Monet depicted in their artworks, not the figments of their dream state, but the surrounding environmental disaster – the air pollution!

The Study

The recent study was published on 31st January in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences journal. For the study, scientists closely examined around 100 artworks by Monet and Turner, the two painters who dominated the impressionist art scene during the industrial revolution from the mid-18th to early 20th centuries. The team discovered that the long belief of some art enthusiasts that Turner and Monet captured “changes in the optical environment in a dream state” through their distinct painting styles, is not entirely true. Rather, the scientists’ team concluded that capturing the optical environment changes was actually associated with the gradually decreasing air quality in the cities, as coal-burning pollutant-spewing factories started dotting the European city skylines during that time. Over the careers of Turner and Monet, the contours of their brushstrokes grew hazier, and the palette appeared visibly whiter. According to the scientists, these stylistic transformations accord with the way the surrounding air pollution used to influence the natural light during the smog-choked time of the industrial revolution.

The Reality

According to atmospheric scientist Anna Lea Albright, the study’s first author, Turner’s lifetime spanned a time of unprecedented environmental change. It’s said that he was born in the ‘age of sail’ and passed away in the ‘age of coal and steam.’ Turner lived in London during the first industrial revolution and witnessed the ‘Big Smoke,’ a lethal concentration of pollutants in the air. Monet came and painted in the later period, during the second industrial revolution, based in Paris and London. To do the study, scientists focused on the data regarding local sulfur dioxide emission levels in both cities during this particular period. Then they also examined how air pollution particles can interact with light, by increasing the ‘whiteness’ or intensity of an image and reducing the contrast of objects viewed against a backdrop. So, they finally determined that it was neither the artists’ cloudy vision nor their dreamy imagination that gave birth to the trend of hazier impressionist paintings but was the stark and dark reality of heavy smog and air pollution.