Classic paintings had a helping hand from volcano

ATHENS (Reuters Life!) - Dozens of masterpieces from 16th to 19th century painters may have had a helping hand from volcanic eruptions that spewed ashes into the atmosphere making sunsets more spectacular, a Greek study showed.

The use of color by artists such as J.M.W. Turner, renowned for his evocative depiction of light, Rembrandt, Rubens, Degas and Gainsborough, and the link to volcanic eruptions is staggering, Greek Professor of Atmospheric Physics Christos Zerefos said.

Zerefos said the 1815 eruption of Indonesia’s Tambora volcano swept ashes all the way to Europe blanketing the continent in a veil and turning 1816 into a “year without summer.”

“Turner depicted that in his dawns and sunsets,” he told Reuters on Thursday.

Other notable eruptions that influenced painted sunsets is the 1883 eruption of the Krakatoa volcano in Indonesia.

Zerefos said he used a dust veil index, created by British 20th century climatologist Hubert Lamb to study volcanic eruptions and their relation to the climate.

The index quantifies the impact of a particular volcanic eruption’s release of dust and aerosols over the years following the event.

“The correlation between the dust veil index and the red-to green color ratio in paintings is amazing,” Zerefos said. “It seems that the paintings’ aerosols in the background are more when they are preceded by volcanic eruptions.”

Zerefos’s team studied hundreds of paintings up until atmospheric data started being collected in the 20th century and said the artists were undoubtedly depicting the real colors as they saw them in nature.

“That may be a fair assumption for Impressionists but even with Expressionists this is the case. It’s amazing,” he said. “It is the first time we are trying to rate art based on the environment.”

Next up is a study of 20th century artists to see how air pollution has influenced their use of colors.

“I urge every artist who paints landscapes to send me his paintings in digital form so we can study them,” Zerefos said.