Sunset paintings and climate change

October 12, 2007 at 3:00 am 2 comments

Following up on yesterday’s post, I came across really fascinating news. I’ve always loved the Impressionist art movement – the vivid, fiery sunsets of a Turner painting; the dappled waters of a Monet reflecting the electric blue sky; the churning clouds; the emerald greens of a Renoir. I studied them in art school but have never stopped to think of Impressionist paintings against the backdrop of climate change. Until now…

Climate change scientists are busy analysing Turner’s paintings along with other Impressionist artists and sniffing out signs of climate change. In 1883, Krakatoa blew its top and coughed up rocks, dust and assorted debris that circled the globe. For many years, stunning sunsets were seen as the retreating light was scattered by reflective particles thrown high into the atmosphere. So the scientists have examined 181 artists who painted sunsets between 1500 and 1900 – before and after Krakatoa – and calculated the amount of material in the sky during the 1880s. This will feed into a scientific study of a phenomenon called global dimming, which is caused by air pollution blocking sunlight.

When Mount Tambora in Indonesia blew up in 1815 there was so much stuff in the atmosphere that 1815 was referred to as the “year without a summer” and there were massive crop failures in Europe, which led to famine and economic collapse.

The amount of red and green along the horizon in each artist’s painting has been calculated by a computer. Sunlight scattered by airborne particles appears more red than green, so the reddest sunsets indicate the dirtiest skies. And the result was most paintings with the highest red/green ratios were painted in the 3 years following Krakatoa’s eruption. There were 54 volcanic sunset paintings.

Interestingly, Turner was in the right place at the right time. He lived before, during and after several volcanic hissy fits: Tambora in 1815; Babuyan, Philippines in 1831, and Cosiguina, Nicaragua in 1835 and in each case the scientists found a sharp change in the red/green ratio of the sunsets he painted up to 3 years afterwards.

The team of scientists hope to check out 40 paintings from the 20th Century to see if the effects of pollution since the Industrial Revolution have been captured in sunset renditions.

Source: Guardian Unlimited

Images: Wikipedia


Entry filed under: Art, Climate Change.

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2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Richard Rhodes  |  October 12, 2007 at 6:07 am

    This is interesting stuff and I only wish I could get hold of artwork even half as decent as these guys. I am based in N. Thailand and I’ve been out this morning hunting for paintings. They’re all so bright. Maybe it’s the perennial dust in the air from forest fires that inspires such vivid colours!

  • 2. thinkingshift  |  October 12, 2007 at 11:17 pm

    Hi Richard
    I’ve been to Thailand a number of times and know what you mean. If you need some help with artwork, I know just the person in BKK who can help.


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