Monet the Astronomer?


[Cross-posted to Revise & Dissent and i-Science]

Monet's Houses of Parliament

Monet’s Houses of Parliament

Is Monet’s paint­ing of the Houses of Parliament above an accur­ate paint­ing of London? The story that it could well be broke in August but I’ve delayed com­ment­ing on it because I wanted to sit down with the ori­ginal paper.

A Picasso, so it could be anything.

A Picasso, so it could be anything.

I tend to be scep­tical of claims that art can be read sci­en­tific­ally. For instance does this really look much like a woman with a gui­tar? The Monet paper had the added prob­lem of stat­ing that the time of paint­ing could be dated. Astronomy is usu­ally a ter­rible way to date things. It really only works if you already know the period of the thing you’re dat­ing, which is why the paper ‘Solar pos­i­tion within Monet’s Houses of Parliament’ by Jacob Baker and John E. Thornes makes a lot of sense. It’s an example of good inter­dis­cip­lin­ary thinking.

The reason it works so well is that Baker and Thornes are able to use his­tor­ical mater­ial to elim­in­ate a lot of spec­u­la­tion. Monet’s life is well stud­ied and many of his let­ters sur­vive, so they are able to place the period dur­ing which Monet was in London. To exam­ine the paint­ing more closely they also needed to cal­cu­late where Monet’s vant­age point was. This was made easier as they knew the build­ing he was in, Saint Thomas’s Hospital. Using archi­tec­tural draw­ings and Monet’s descrip­tion of the room they had a set of likely can­did­ates. They then tried to match this to the view from the paint­ing.
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