Engineer the Future with Van Gogh

Factories at Clichy 2050, Van Gogh X Lovett

By Museum of Engineering Innovation

Factories at Clichy (1887) by Van GoghMuseum of Engineering Innovation

Artists in the 19th century captured on canvas the daily lives of people in rural and urban settings. These ‘old masters’ depict scenes that will be familiar, but they tell a story that belongs firmly in the past.  

The harvest (June 1888 - 1888) by Vincent van GoghVan Gogh Museum

The UK's goal of reaching net zero carbon emissions by 2050 is a massive undertaking. Decarbonisation on this timescale and of this magnitude will bring widespread changes to every aspect of daily life.

From how we produce our food to how we build our houses and cities, our future daily lives will have been shaped by today’s engineers and engineering. 

Sunflowers (January 1889 - 1889) by Vincent van GoghVan Gogh Museum

If Van Gogh was alive in 2050, what stories would spark his creativity? What could a net zero world look like in 2050 - a world that has been shaped by engineers and feats of engineering today to help us live a more sustainable life tomorrow?

Factories at Clichy (1887) by Van GoghMuseum of Engineering Innovation

Factories at Clichy is a landscape depicting industrial growth amid rural plains, a phenomenon called by some "banlieue" or "terrain vague". A fence separates the rural field from the emission-generating industrial complex.            

Net Zero Factories at Clichy (2021) by Vincent Van GoghMuseum of Engineering Innovation

This sympathetic recreation shows how cleaner, greener innovations, created by engineers, could transform everyday life and landscapes in the future. We will need to re-engineer how we live in cities to house the growing urban population, feed them, and transport them.

Engineer the Future - Ashly Lovett Commentary (2021) by LovettMuseum of Engineering Innovation

In discussion with Ashly Lovett

Behind the scenes with the digital artist who reimagined Van Gogh's Factories at Clichy

Net Zero Factories at Clichy (2021) by Vincent Van GoghMuseum of Engineering Innovation

To counter greenhouse gas emissions,  our skies in 2050 could be peppered with smaller planes and vertical taxis. A range of different convenient and sustainable options for travelling by air may be available.

Research from Carnegie Mellon University concluded that small package deliveries by drones have lower GHG emissions than diesel trucks, even when accounting for the potential additional warehouse space needed.  For larger packages, they could be delivered by electric vans or trucks rather than larger drones. 

Vertical taxis resembling flying drones could carry up to four people for long and short haul journeys. Made from materials that act like a battery, vertical drone-taxis may be lighter, doubling the distance they could travel today.  

What might our cities look like in 2050?  With the global population predicted to top 10 billion by 2050 there will be an urgent need for sustainably built housing that is responsive to the extreme effects of climate change and that meets the needs of a net zero future.

Heat exchangers could be installed on roofs, along with renewable technologies such as solar panels and heat pumps to heat, light and power homes sustainably. 

Existing houses could be retro-fitted to make them more energy-efficient:  walls and roofs can be insulated, floors and doors draught-proofed and windows triple glazed.

Factories at Clichy (1887) by Van GoghMuseum of Engineering Innovation

The original painting seems to illustrate a line from one of van Gogh's favourite novels, L'Assommoir by Émile Zola: "a great forest of factory chimneys" filling the sky. 

Net Zero Factories at Clichy (2021) by Vincent Van GoghMuseum of Engineering Innovation

Notice how the painting is brighter than Van Gogh’s original.  Gone are the fossil fuel burning factories and with them the smog-laden skies. 

Cleaner energy production should mean that factories will no longer be pumping out black smoke.  In combination with vertical gardens, electric vehicles and greener cities, air quality may be improved, the city smog might disappear and skies could appear brighter. 

In the fields in the foreground of this painting you’ll find agricultural robots tending the crops in the field. The use of precision farming techniques may become more commonplace; the practice has been shown to slash agricultural carbon emissions.

The patchwork nature of these fields showcases how a variety of crops could be grown side by side through pixel cropping, a technique used to improve crop yields and resource efficiency. 

Different patches of a field may suit different crops due to soil acidity, drainage, and shading. Pixel cropping allows the most suited crop to be grown at the right time and place. This can help soil health and reduce the need for fertilisers, pesticides and prevent over-watering.

Cutting across the painting, the artist imagines a high-speed, carbon neutral transport system that could use electric propulsion and magnetic levitation to propel passenger pods around vacuum tubes to their destinations, revolutionising the future of public transport.

Sophie Harker, Assistant Chief Engineer of Electric Products at BAE Systems, thinks Van Gogh would capture a variety of electrically powered ways to transport ourselves and our goods in 2050.  

She says: “In the future, we may be using a pod system for public transport, for example on a Hyperloop.  People would likely use this system for travelling long distances cross-country or city to city,  then shorter journeys could be taken by vertical taxis that carry up to four people. Heavy lift flying drones could also be used for transportation of goods or for emergency response.” 

Farms in 2050 might be growing biofuels and may be producing their own energy through wind turbines, anaerobic digestors and solar panels to create a closed system.  

Anaerobic digestion is a process through which bacteria break down organic matter such as animal manure, wastewater biosolids, and food wastes in the absence of oxygen. Anaerobic digestion produces biogas, which can replace natural gas to provide heat, generate electricity, and power cooling systems.

Looking into the city, the painting imagines factories replaced by an abundance of green spaces, with streamlined skyscrapers making an efficient use of land while incorporating vertical farming into their design.

Gardens are integrated into this vision of future living spaces, as greenery may help to filter out pollutants while also absorbing heat and reducing reliance on air-conditioning systems.  

This landscape highlights engineering feats of the future that are needed to help the UK reach its goal of net zero by 2050

This artwork was reimagined by artist Ashly Lovett, based on Van Gogh's 1887 Factories at Clichy. 

Factories at Clichy (1887) by Van GoghMuseum of Engineering Innovation

Van Gogh annotated (2021) by LovettMuseum of Engineering Innovation

Self-portrait with grey felt hat (September 1887 - October 1887) by Vincent van GoghVan Gogh Museum

Vincent van Gogh was a Dutch post-impressionist painter who posthumously became one of the most famous and influential figures in the history of Western art. In a decade, he created about 2,100 artworks, including landscapes, still lifes, portraits and self-portraits. 

Self-portrait with grey felt hat (September 1887 - October 1887) by Vincent van GoghVan Gogh Museum

Van Gogh’s work was characterised by bold colours and dramatic, impulsive and expressive brushwork that contributed to the foundations of modern art.

Ashly Lovett Headshot by Ashly LovettMuseum of Engineering Innovation

Known for her captivatingly ethereal artwork in chalk pastel, Ashly Lovett is a freelance illustrator, writer and gallery artist. Inspired by folklore and mythology, she hopes to bewitch her viewers with a deep sense of wonder. 

Ashly Lovett Headshot by Ashly LovettMuseum of Engineering Innovation

She has done licensed work for Jim Henson Company, Adult Swim, Netflix, SEGA, and more. She received her BA in Illustration from Ringling College of Art and Design and has exhibited in galleries from California to New York. She lives in Louisiana, USA with her husband Matthew, son Leon, and fat cat Skeletor (a.k.a. Skelly.)

View the other exhibits in the reimagined series:

Engineer the Future with Constable

Engineer the Future with Monet

Engineer the Future with Pissarro

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The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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