I heard a fascinating addendum to my blog entry of June 7th about artwork helping to unravel meteorologist mysteries of the past on NPR today. With the title, "Scientists pinpoint Monet's Balcony", host Guy Raz interviewed John Thornes, Professor of Applied Meteorology at Birmingham University.
Like other scientists looking at artists' work to learn of past weather conditions and other situations, John Thornes has been studying Claude Monet's paintings which he did in London in the winters of 1899-1901. These famous paintings of Waterloo and Charing Cross Bridges and along the Thames to the Houses of Parliament - 95 images in total - were painted from the balcony of his rooms at the Savoy Hotel. As Monet did so often, he worked on different canvases as the light moved. He apparently used the morning light to depict Waterloo Bridge, the midday hours to paint the Charing Cross Bridge and ended his busy days capturing the sunsets along the river towards the Houses of Parliament.
Professor Thornes and his team used solar geometry and historical weather data to determine exactly which balconies of the Savoy had become Monet's painting sites, based on the sunlight that Monet painted in each canvas. Monet, like many other artists, was amazingly accurate in his representation of the prevailing weather, so the visual coloured record of wintertime London is also one of the famous "pea souper" conditions that prevailed for so long in the smoky, foggy city. Monet, in fact, damaged his health by exposure to all that pollution, even though he apparently considered all the smog as an "envelope" between him and the scenery.
Clearly scientists have a rich resource to mine in artists' observations of the skies and world around them. For John Thornes, for example, the next of Monet's paintings to be examined for meteorological information is his Impression, Sunrise, the canvas painted at Le Havre that purportedly gave rise to the name of Impressionism. It must be a thrill to combine one's passions for art and science in these sleuthing ventures.