Scientists track trends in air pollution through paintings by artists from the time of industrialization

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(ORDO NEWS) — During the Industrial Revolution in Western Europe, air pollution rose to unprecedented levels, leading to mass illnesses and increased deaths among urban residents.

However, it is not possible to determine the exact indicators of pollution at that time due to the lack of systematic large-scale direct measurements.

Scientists from the United States and France approached the issue extremely gracefully: they followed the stylistic changes in the paintings of 19th-century artists, correlating them with the level of atmospheric pollution.

Some works of art, even those that do not even seem close to “realistic”, sometimes quite accurately reflect specific natural phenomena.

So, from the picture, you can determine the exact dating of its writing or the meteorological conditions in which the canvas was created.

Surprisingly, the skillful selection of the shade of the sunset allows one to quite accurately convey the atmospheric changes that occur in connection with volcanic eruptions and the release of various aerosol particles by them.

Suspended aerosol particles affect the contrast, intensity and visibility of an object in both photography and visual perception.

Any object that reflects light is visible due to its contrast with the background light.

At the same time, if a large amount of suspended solid particles are distributed in the air between the observer and the object, scattering and absorbing background light and light from the object, then the observed object will appear lighter and less contrasting, with less clear edges.

Based on this knowledge, a duo of scientists from the US and France have developed a statistical model to determine whether 19th-century paintings reflect the increased levels of air pollution that clouded the skies over London and Paris during the Industrial Revolution.

Scientists track trends in air pollution through paintings by artists from the time of industrialization 2
Diagram illustrating the key processes by which aerosols affect object contrast, intensity, and visibility

To begin with, the authors created a special contrast measure that allows you to judge the level of air pollution – whether it be a photograph or a painting.

The researchers tested this scoring method on a couple of shots taken in clear and polluted conditions, demonstrating its effectiveness.

Scientists track trends in air pollution through paintings by artists from the time of industrialization 3
Trends in contrast ratio for various subjects in 60 Turner paintings (red) and 38 Monet paintings (blue) compared to year (A) or SO 2 emissions (B) in London or Paris

They then analyzed the contrast of 60 paintings by William Turner and 38 paintings by Claude Monet depicting 19th-century London and Paris cityscapes and correlated these data with a historical air pollution indicator based on estimates of sulfur dioxide (SO 2 ) emissions correlated with total air pollution in those years.

According to the results of the analysis of the contrast of the paintings, the scientists concluded that with an increase in the level of air pollution in Turner’s works, instead of clear contours, foggy colors began to prevail, saturated colors changed to pastel, and the style turned from figurative to impressionistic.

Similar changes were observed in the paintings of Monet. In addition, based on the level of air pollution in Paris, the model was able to predict the contrast of paintings by other artists such as James Whistler, Gustave Caillebotte, Camille Pissarro and Berthe Morisot.


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