Turns out, studying the works of great painters like J. M. W. Turner not only makes you a more cultured person (amirite, Mr. President?), but it can also reveal a lot about how polluted the earth's atmosphere was centuries ago, the latest subject of interest for a group of Greek scientists. The researchers from the Academy of Athens hypothesized that the prevalence of warm hues found in famous sunset depictions by past artists signified the presence of volcanic ash and particles of dust, called aerosols.
To test their hypothesis, the scientists examined 554 sunset paintings created between 1500 and 2000, paying close attention to the amount of red in the horizon of each. They compared the prevalence of warm colors to records of volcanic eruptions, when aerosols would have filled the air.
Turns out, they were right. Painters tended to use more reds and warm hues in their paintings when the air contained debris from a volcanic eruption, dust, or other man-made pollutants. The scientists observed this trend prevailed even when they considered other factors that could have influenced the colors, like school of painting or even the mood of the painter.
Just to further test their premise, the scientists asked contemporary artist Panayiotis Tetsis to render a few sunsets on the Greek island of Hydra. The artist, who didn't know a Saharan dust cloud was traveling over the island at the time, agreed and produced a few more paintings that confirmed the scholars' conjecture. Tetsis unconsciously used more red in his paintings when the air contained more aerosols. Pretty damn cool.
[via Smithsonian Mag]