Monet and Pissarro produced many landscapes of the industrializing Seine Valley around Paris, as did other Impressionists and Post-Impressionists. Manet’s 1874 Argenteuil, les canotiers (1874, above), with its idyllic foreground and smoky background, seems uncertain in its attitude to industrial pollution. It was ridiculed by a contemporary critic who insinuated that the blue of the river must have been the product of industrial pollution, yet T.J. Clark sees it as the picture in which effort was made to place in order the middle class, the countryside, and industry “and insist they belong together.”
Gustave Caillebotte’s depictions of the same site show a cubist-like ability to shatter reality into multiple points of view. While his Boats Moored at Argenteuil (1883, above) shows no hint of the industry in the area, Factories at Argenteuil (1888, right) shows a bleak industrial landscape with gray smoke feeding gray skies, reflected again in the gray water. La Seine à Argenteuil (c. 1892, below), with its almost natural landscape dominating the foreground and smoking factories in the background, juxtaposes these two aspects of reality, distinguishing, on the one hand, between pristine nature and industrial pollution, yet at the same time melding chimney smoke and natural clouds. Are these depictions of Argenteuil simply the artist’s attempt to depict different facets of reality, a celebration of industrialization, or a critique and warning of the threat posed by modern pollution to the aesthetic of nature and countryside?
Degas’s Henri Rouart in Front of His Factory (c. 1875, right) is less ambiguous; here the pollution filling the sky seems to bellow not just from the chimneys of the factory, but from chimney pot hat of its owner, the artist’s close friend. Given Degas’s relationship with Rouart, it seems the pollution cannot be taken as anything but a positive result of the subject’s activities, a sign of productivity and progress. Thus, while here and there, as in Dufy’s Fin de journée, a critical tone toward pollution emerges, the general tone of much of the Impressionists’ work on the industrial landscapes of their time seems closer to Degas’s attitude. “In the end,” as James Rubin writes, “Impressionist representations of economic productivity were as allied with bourgeois interests as its representations of leisure were.”
But what are we to make of all this—the factories, the chimneys, the smoke, the gray haze? The personal and expressive nature of art, seemingly an obstacle to recovering physical realities, may actually be leveraged for historical understanding of cultural attitudes. Even granting that painters are likely to be possessed of greater than average visual sensitivity and opportunity to contemplate the environment, the fact that countless painters found the air pollution of the industrial revolution a worthy subject is probably an indicator that this was an issue that did not pass unnoticed by contemporaries, including the law-making professions and classes. Artists’ depictions of pollution may have also contributed to public consciousness, as argued by Oscar Wilde’s Vivian in The Decay of Lying:
Where, if not from the Impressionists, do we get those wonderful brown fogs that come creeping down our streets, blurring the gas-lamps and changing the houses into monstrous shadows? To whom, if not to them and their master, do we owe the lovely silver mists that brood over our river, and turn to faint forms of fading grace curved bridge and swaying barge? The extraordinary change that has taken place in the climate of London during the last ten years is entirely due to a particular school of Art . . . . At present, people see fogs, not because there are fogs, but because poets and painters have taught them the mysterious loveliness of such effects. There may have been fogs for centuries in London. I dare say there were. But no one saw them, and so we do not know anything about them. They did not exist till Art had invented them. Now, it must be admitted, fogs are carried to excess. They have become the mere mannerism of a clique, and the exaggerated realism of their method gives dull people bronchitis.
So if we pose the historical question, why did environmental law not really “take off” until the 1960s and ’70s, art might at least help us consider two possible answers: that pollution was not a serious problem until then; and that it was somehow not perceived until then. Both these answers, late nineteenth-century art suggests, are wrong. While for the question of the scientific reality of pollution we cannot rule out the possibility that artists exaggerated its severity, their testimony in any case actually corroborates what we know from other sources. As for the perception of industrial pollution, the range of artistic sources indicates that contemporaries very much saw the pollution—possibly, as Wilde pointed out, as a result of those same artistic sources.
Why, then, did it take lawmakers a century to begin to grapple effectively with the problem? Here the artistic record is ambiguous yet suggestive. The wasted landscape and wasted workers of the early Dufy’s Fin du journée and Dickens’s depictions of the oppressive London pollution seem to leave little doubt where their sympathies lay, and the fact that Bleak House’s publication was followed by the enactment of an air pollution control statute for London is indicative that Dickens’s position was representative of wider sentiments (and possibly influenced them). Yet the attitude of other artists to the pollution they recorded is less clear. Artists like Monet seemed more excited by the visual novelties of the choking London smog or the factories taking over the French countryside than concerned by any deleterious effects on human health or cultural heritage, let alone habitats or ecological systems. To many, furthermore, pollution symbolized progress, not danger or destruction. Art can thus help us better understand some of the forces behind the delayed development of environmental law in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries: not lack of pollution, not lack of awareness of pollution, but a tolerance or even an embrace of smoke and what it represented, which appears to have been prevalent among many.