Is pollution art?

J. M. W. Turner
Does pollution deserve some artistic credit?
Credit: Getty

A new study shows that landscapes painted by the likes of J.M.W. Turner are the picture of pollution. The report, led by Andreas Kazantzidis from the University of Patras, Greece, discovered that artists’ stunning sunsets became redder as air pollution increased.

Kazantzidis and his team of scientists analyzed hundreds of paintings between the period 1500 and 2000 and found a correlation between events such as volcanic eruptions and the sky coloration on the canvases of some of the art world’s greatest masters. We spoke with him to learn more.

Is it fair to say that many artists owe a lot to pollution?

Yes, for many of them it’s true. The images would not be so romantic as we see them now.

What part of the world and which of the greats did you look to?

Most of our research corresponds with the atmospheric conditions in Europe. In some paintings you see significant changes in the colors, and this is connected to volcanic eruptions. Painters like Edgar Degas and J.M.W. Turner see a very nice sunset, and this speaks to their “toxic souls.”

Why are some of the sunsets and sunrises redder in color?

The basic idea is that we can scientifically demonstrate the fact that the change of atmospheric constituents (aerosols) affects the colors depicted in the paintings. There are different colors in sunset and sunrise because there are different constituents in the atmosphere.


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