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Monet, a smog indicator?

Scientists believe Claude Monet's paintings of the Houses of Parliament can be a useful indicator of smog levels in the late 19th-century London.

india Updated: Aug 11, 2006 20:00 IST

The French painter Claude Monet is being used as an environmental monitor, for scientists believe his legendary paintings of the Houses of Parliament can serve as a useful indicator of smog levels in late 19th-century London.

Monet’s so-called London series was painted during visits between 1899 and 1905, capturing scenes that are often astonishing for their grey and purplish haze. Many experts have assumed, though, that this extraordinary effect was an Impressionistic embellishment.

Environmental researchers at the University of Birmingham in central England analysed nine out of 19 Monet paintings of the Houses of Parliament, painted between 1899 and 1901.

Using the position of the Sun, they calculated the date when the paintings were made, as well as the precise location where Monet set up his easel — the far end of St Thomas’ Hospital, on the South Bank of the Thames, opposite the British legislature.

The dates and the angle of the Sun concur with Monet’s accounts in letters back home to his wife, in which he described his progress on the London series, the weather and other matters, as well as with the daily meteorological records during this period.

The scientists believe there is strong evidence Monet faithfully rendered the London sun as he saw it at the time. In other words, the painter is unlikely to have added artistic touches when back in his studio in France in order to enhance the city’s eerie “pea soup” atmosphere.

The next step is to see whether the extraordinary colours captured in Monet’s haze give a clue to the chemistry and particles of the pollution. The study appears in the latest issued Proceedings of the Royal Society A, a journal published by the Royal Society, Britain’s de-facto academy of sciences.

In previous research, geometrists have determined the exact date when the US photographer Ansel Adams captured his landscape entitled ‘Autumn Moon, the High Sierra from Glacier Point’ and when Van Gogh made some of his most important night paintings, including ‘Starry Night.’