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Hospital view. Experts decipher where Monet was standing
· Research sheds light on pollution in Victorian days
· Findings correlate with artist's letters home
They are some of the most iconic images of Victorian London, capturing the brooding power of a city at the height of its economic prowess. Even the choking smog bleeding the light from the setting sun is testament to the grime thrown up by the capital's industrial might.
By analysing the oil paintings in Claude Monet's "
series", scientists have managed to work out exactly where and when the great painter was standing as he worked his brush.
The researchers wanted to know how literally we should take the oil paintings and hence the colors rendered by the artist in his setting skies. They wanted to use the images as a proxy for the pollution in the atmosphere at the time and hence the likely effect on Londoners' health.
Despite the stunning results, the artist's trips to
in 1900 and 1901 were marked by frustration. Monet stayed at the Savoy Hotel on the
and woke early each day to capture dawn over
bridge from his window. In the evening he painted the sun setting through the fog over the houses of parliament.
"Monet was fascinated by the way in which the atmosphere helped define the motif he was painting and the way the light affected the way we perceive the surroundings," said Jacob Baker at the
, who has carried out the analysis. "But he was under a lot of psychological stress because the weather was so changeable." Monet's letters home to his wife, Alice, bear this out: "Still no sign of the sun, nor a break in the clouds," he wrote on
March 7 1900
. "Time goes by and the sun also, so that on the day when it will decide to appear, it will no longer be in the same place."
On another day he described his task as "diabolically difficult". But during those rare breaks in the gloomy British winter the results were electric. In another letter the painter told how he wanted to depict the sun "setting in an enormous ball of fire behind the parliament".
Dr Baker and his colleague John Thornes first set about establishing where Monet stood with his canvas. From the relative positions of parliament's spires and historical maps of
' hospital, they worked out that he must have been in the administration block on the second floor - the block closest to
bridge. The hospital was destroyed in the blitz.
This allowed them to work out the various potential arcs the setting sun could have followed during the days Monet was in
. As his stay wore on, the sun was setting further to the right, until eventually it was to the right of Big Ben.
The dates and times the pair report today in the Proceedings of the Royal Society, Series A, tie in with information in Monet's letters home about when he was able to paint. Dr Baker sees this as evidence that Monet's oil paintings are a true representation of the scene in front of him, so researchers could use other information in the picture as well. For example, the color of the sunset can tell scientists the size, density and composition of fog particles, with oily specks producing a yellowish green haze and soot particles giving a bluish hue.
But Christopher Riopelle, the curator of post-1800 paintings at the National Gallery in
, said he was cautious about relying too heavily on the images. "[Monet] is not taking a photograph, he is creating a surface with paint that is interesting in and of itself," he said.
"Scientific people, to my mind, often overestimate the specificity of painted images. The pictures in
one would assume would have been very accurate, but he is an artist who, in addition to observing nature, is making all kinds of aesthetic decisions." He said Monet had finished many of his
paintings when he returned to
Monet's second stay in
was ended by pleurisy. "Three weeks in this hotel room without being able to work," he wrote on
March 29 1901
, "not having any more the heart to look at this beautiful
, seeing so many lost efforts."