The hazy landscapes favored by impressionist artists in the mid-18th to 20th centuries were not just dreamy depictions of nature—they were a reflection of the environmental condition of the era, according to a new study published by the National Academy of Sciences.

Pollution Painters

Researchers analyzed 100 pieces of artwork by French painter Claude Monet and English artist Joseph Mallord William (J.M.W.) Turner, who created their masterpieces during the Industrial Revolution when coal factories operated in multiple European cities and emitted air pollutants.

Polluted landscapes are evident in famous paintings such as Monet’s 1903 “The Houses of Parliament, Sunset,” and Turner’s 1844 “Rain, Steam, and Speed – The Great Western Railway.”

Turner's “Rain, Steam and Speed — The Great Western Railway”

Turner’s “Rain, Steam and Speed — The Great Western Railway” – 1844. Via Wikimedia Commons.

Study author Anna Lea Albright told Live Science: “It is often said that Turner was born in the age of sail and died in the age of steam and coal — his lifetime spans a time of unprecedented environmental change.” She noted that in London during the first Industrial Revolution, air pollution was known as the “Big Smoke.” Later, Monet painted what he saw during the second Industrial Revolution in London and Paris. Comparable air pollution is present today in cities such as Beijing, New Delhi and Mexico City.

The researchers analyzed how air pollution interacts with light, specifically looking at local sulfur dioxide emission levels in London and Paris from the 18th to 20th centuries. They determined that air pollution can reduce contrast and increase an image’s “whiteness.”

Haze Craze

Monet’s and Turner’s vision was not a factor in their depictions of hazy landscapes—their eyesight was just fine. Albright pointed out that over time, the haziness in the artist’s contours became more pronounced and “the palette appeared whiter and the style transformed from more figurative to more impressionistic.”

Environmental changes, which effected the light around them, led to a change in their style of painting. The addition of toxic microscopic particles in the air absorbs and scatters light, which makes long-distance objects appear hazier. Albright noted, “By scattering background light of all wavelengths into the line of vision, the presence of air pollution gives images a whiter tint.”

Monet's "Houses of Parliament"

Monet’s “Houses of Parliament” – 1900. Via Wikimedia Commons.

Turner’s and Monet’s impressionistic paintings “capture a certain reality,” according to Peter Huybers, study co-author and Harvard University professor of Earth and planetary sciences. He noted how the artists realistically portrayed how sunlight filters through pollution and clouds and that Impressionism depicted polluted realism.

The researchers concluded in their study that “our view is that impressionistic paintings recording natural phenomena—as opposed to being imagined, amalgamated, or abstracted—does not diminish their significance; rather, it highlights the connection between environment and art.”

In addition, study authors discerned that atmospheric changes can “both literally and figuratively change how we see the world.”

By Noelle Talmon, contributor for


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