Other researchers are reconstructing climate history from a different sort of animal: impressionist artists. By analyzing the vivid colors in paintings by such artists as J.M.W. Turner, Claude Lorrain, Alexander Cozens, and Edgar Degas, some scientists hope to say something significant about volcano-related cooling--and possibly human-induced pollution--over the past few centuries.
The scientists studied works painted around the times of major volcanic eruptions, such as the cataclysmic explosion of Mount Krakatoa in 1883, to measure how much pollution was pumped into the skies. Contemporary accounts describe brilliant sunsets after Krakatoa erupted. “The initial idea arose from the fact that we saw an increased reddening of colors in sunsets which followed large volcanic eruptions, particularly Krakatoa,” [Christos] Zerefos, [who led the research at the National Observatory in Athens] said. [MSNBC]
After examining over 500 paintings, and designating 54 of them as "volcanic sunset paintings," due to the year in which they were painted, the scientists discovered the these volcanic paintings were also the paintings with the greatest red to green ratio. In other words, there seems to be a concrete link between the vibrant colors and the fact that the paintings were created shortly after a volcanic eruption.
As they continue their research, the scientists hope to find ways to better track volcanic-induced cooling and environmental pollution, though some researchers are quite skeptical about this technique:
James Hamilton, the curator at the University of Birmingham, who has written books on Turner, said that while Turner claimed to paint what he saw, it’s dangerous to put too much weight on an artist’s interpretation. “They (artists) are not making absolutely clear and accurate records of what they can see,” he said. “It’s very hard to tell when artists are being absolutely accurate and when they’re using vivid sky as a platform to more vivid painting.” [MSNBC]