The vibrant colors of Vincent Van Gogh’s paintings of Sunflowers and Field with Irises have delighted viewers for years. His energetic strokes and bright hues have made the impressionist paintings of Van Gogh among the most valuable in the world. Generations have enjoyed the artist’s works, but they do not look the same as they used to. The art of Van Gogh is fading away, particularly any reddish shades, and scientists are now trying to preserve his legacy.
Art curators have puzzled over the changing colors for some time since it became apparent that many parts of his paintings have gotten whiter. His blue irises, which were painted in 1888, were more of a purple shade originally. There have been other chemical reactions noted through the years in his work, but it seemed that the items with red in the paint were noticeably changing.
Scientists at the University of Antwerp have determined that the source of the Van Gogh masterpieces’ degradation is the plumbonacrite, a rare lead-based mineral that the artists mixed in his paint. The mineral has been reacting to carbon dioxide in the air and the result has been the changing colors.
Van Gogh, Renoir and other impressionists were fascinating by the industrial revolution and it’s impact on the art world, particularly the manufacturing of paints. Plumbonacrite is one of the first synthetically made paints. Unfortunately, Van Gogh was a fan of it and the red pigments it added to his paint mixtures.
To study how the red paint was affecting the artist’s work, the researchers in Belgium studied a tiny white piece of paint from Van Gogh’s Wheat Stack Under a Cloudy Sky. They examined speck under a microscope and used lasers on it to determine what the mineral content. They found that the speck of paint they look at was originally red.
Apparently, the pond in the Van Gogh painting originally featured bold red colors intended to represent an impressionist view of autumn leaves on the water. However, the red leaves long ago turned grey and are now slowly taking on the appearance of the white clouds in the sky.
The exam in Belgium found the presence of a carbonate-poor lead mixture in between the red and the white layer. This helped them determine that plumbonacrite was present and acting as a degradation product whitening of paint. To make matters worse, they found that, during previous restoration efforts, experts added zinc white pigments to boost what they erroneously believed were white pigments in the pond.
Another Van Gogh work that is known to be changing significantly is his painting of his room, The Bedroom, also from 1888. The artist had described his room and its vivid colors in letters to his siblings. From the painter’s descriptions, scientists have reconstructed how the painting must have once looked. They believe the pale brown floor was a richer purple and peach shade while the blue walls are believed to have been an orange-red and violet. These changes also support the theory that it is the red pigments that are changing the most.
The findings could help museums and curators slow the fading on Van Gogh’s masterpieces by changing the environment in which the paintings are displayed. For example, these findings will undoubtedly help art museums determine the most advantageous quantity of light to use in galleries displaying works by Van Gogh and other impressionist artists whose works might also be fading away.
By Dyanne Weiss