Paintings by Turner and Monet Depict Trends in 19th Century Air Pollution

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Anna Lea Albright , Peter Huybers


Individual paintings by artists including Vincent van Gogh and Edvard Munch have been shown to depict specific atmospheric phenomena, raising the question whether longer-term environmental change influences stylistic trends in painting. Anthropogenic aerosol emissions increased to unprecedented levels during the 19th century as a consequence of the Industrial Revolution, particularly in Western European cities, leading to an optical environment having less contrast and more intensity. Here we show that trends from more figurative to impressionistic representations in J.M.W. Turner and Claude Monet's paintings in London and Paris over the 19th century accurately render physical changes in their local optical environment. In particular, we demonstrate that changes in local sulfur dioxide emissions are a highly statistically-significant explanatory variable for trends in the contrast and intensity of Turner, Monet, and others' works, including after controlling for time trends and subject matter. Industrialization altered the environmental context in which painting occurred, and our results indicate that Impressionism contains elements of polluted realism.



Physical Sciences and Mathematics


air pollution, Atmospheric Science, Environmental reconstructions, Artwork, climate change


Published: 2022-11-04 15:24

Last Updated: 2022-11-04 22:24


CC BY Attribution 4.0 International

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Data Availability (Reason not available):
Painting, photograph, and SO2 data are available at The code to generate the plots and perform the relevant analyses will be made available with a DOI.

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