|Claude Monet, Boats in the Pool of London, 1871, private collection|
The first reason for my turn to art is prosaic. Traditional legal sources—treatises, digests, national legislation, and appellate decisions—clearly dedicated to identifiably environmental topics were few and far between before the 1970s, and so legal-historical research of even the simplest sort—identification of the norms of positive law—needs to take up whatever tools, however indirect, it can find. Though the physicality of the environment seemingly makes environmental law a good candidate for historical investigation based on visual sources, the legal element of environmental issues has only been foregrounded infrequently in art, even when environmental issues are clearly the subject of that art. Beyond this seemingly technical task, art may be a useful source for two further dimensions of the historical understanding of environmental law: it might provide insight into the background conditions—environmental and cultural—against which and in reaction to the law developed; and it might provide data for assessing the effectiveness of environmental law.
It is, of course, problematic to assume that a work of art presents an accurate representation of historical reality; even on the level of subjective perception, assuming that the work of an individual artist is somehow representative of general attitudes may be unwarranted. Nonetheless, the potential profit to be gained from this heretofore unexamined set of sources seems great enough to justify a tentative attempt at using art to try to learn something about the history of environmental law that we might not be able to learn otherwise. In this article I would like to use art mostly as evidence of historical attitudes towards environmental issues, but I believe that it also has some value as evidence of the physical environment in history. As Peter Brimblecombe writes: