Turner on Climate Change?
March 25 2014
Crikey, the scientists have been playing with Old Masters again. A new article in Atmosphere, Chemistry and Physics claims that paintings can be used to assess climate changes, and in particular aerosol optical depths (AODs, caused by things like ash and sand in the atmosphere). They've analysed a series of landscapes, from 1500 to 2000, including Turner's watercolour sketch 'Red Sky and Crescent Moon', above, and deduced that the levels AODs in the atmosphere throughout history can be determined in art. You and I, however, might think it's something to do with artistic interpretation. But A for effort, scientists!
Update - a reader sees wisdom in the scientist's approach:
It appears that what the scholarly study says is that the aerosol optical dispersion of particulates and visible gases in renderings of sunsets by a range of artists and in many paintings made during the past five hundred years when compared at both high and low resolution are consistent within a narrow variation with scientific evidence regarding the visible effects of volcanic eruptions and Saharan dust storms on these substances in the atmosphere.
Of great interest to us is the fact that eighty four percent of the paintings in the Tate sample were by J M W Turner and that this narrow sample produced results statistically nearly identical to those from a diverse sample from The National Gallery covering the study's full temporal and artistic range.
This has three implications-
First it further confirms scientific data regarding AODs,
Second it suggests that paintings might contain additional atmospheric information perhaps regarding climatic variations,
Third and principally,, it implies that painters painted what they saw rather than what they were imagining.