How Air Pollution Might Be Linked to Impressionism

Have you ever thought about how the paintings of famous Impressionist painters like Monet changed over time?

Unless you’re interested in art history, you probably haven’t thought much about it. That is, until people began discussing how air pollution might be linked to Impressionism.

That’s right. Air pollution may have significantly impacted painters’ perspective of the world and, therefore, their art style. Before we get into discussing art and air quality, let’s look at what Impressionism art is as a style.

What is Impressionism?

Impressionism is a style of painting that began in France during the mid-to-late 19th century. These paintings often used unblended color and had an emphasis on accurately depicting natural light. Characterizations of the style include small, visible brushstrokes that offer the bare impression of form.

Impressionist painters differed from other artists before them because they painted in the open air, focusing on a painting style directly confronting nature and modern city life. Instead of drawing on history and myths for inspiration, Impressionists tended to paint contemporary landscapes and scenes of modern life. They paid attention to the fleeting effect of light, atmosphere and movement.

The founding Impressionist artists – including Claude Monet, Camille Pissarro, Alfred Sisley and Edgar Degas, among others – were united by their desire to cast off the strict rules of academic-style painting.

How Air Pollution May Have Inspired Artists

Historically, the shift to the hazy style of the Impressionists has been attributed to shifting stylistic preferences because there was no reason to believe otherwise. A 2023 study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences argues this change was due, in part, to a change in the environment—in other words, air pollution.

As we know, air pollution can alter the appearance of the landscape these artists were painting in a way that was easily visible to the naked eye. The world literally became blurrier as the Industrial Revolution engulfed many areas of the world in smog.

In this study, Albright and Huybers explain the science behind this art and air quality. They describe that aerosols in air pollution reflect light to create environments with higher intensity and less contrast. As a result, the world takes on a whiter tint, and objects appear less differentiated from one another — which we see reflected in the later paintings of Turner and Monet.

We can see evidence in how Monet's artwork in the beginning of Monet’s career differs from that at the end. Here's an earlier painting: 

Image from the National Gallery of Art

And here is one of his later paintings:

Image from Claude Monet

As you can see, there are significant differences between Monet’s Sainte-Adresse in 1867 and his Houses of Parliament series that began around 1899.

Why Some Think It’s A Myth

Some believe the changes seen in the Impressionism style paintings over time could have been attributed to other factors, such as a stylistic choice or a worsening in the painters’ eyesight. The study rejects the theory that Turner’s and Monet’s eyesight worsened as they aged, which affected their ability to paint a clear landscape.

They noted that Turner painted objects in precise detail in the foreground of the Impressionist paintings while successfully blurring those in the background. Additionally, they provided evidence that Monet didn’t develop cataracts until decades after he started painting in this impressionistic style.

Of course, air pollution isn’t the only thing that inspired art during the time.

Symbolism was another 19th-century art movement that began in France and Belgium that differed significantly from Impressionism. The symbolism movement sought to represent absolute truths symbolically through language, and symbolic images where the symbols used were not familiar emblems but obscure, ambiguous and highly personal references.

Within painting specifically, symbolism as a movement was a revival of some mystical tendencies in the Romantic tradition—symbolist painters tended to use dream and mythological focused imagery.

While we’ll never know for sure if Impressionism is related to air quality, there is evidence that suggests it. Air quality studies like this can open our eyes to new ideas, but it’s still important to measure your own air quality to protect yourself.

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