Van Gogh’s yellows turning brown

Van Gogh's yellows turning brown
Much has been made of the advances over the centuries, and particularly in the last century or two, in paint chemistry, allowing artists to work with an ever-broadening array of pigments, and often providing much needed replacements for older, plant-based pigments that were fugitive over time.

Not all advances in paint technology are for the better in that respect, however. A case in point is the mystery of why the brilliant yellows in many of Vincent van Gogh’s paintings have been turning brown with age.

A recent study, carried out with an ultra high-tech process, using high intensity x-rays generated by a synchrotron at the ESRF, a center for the study of materials in France, has found the chemical reaction responsible for the unfortunate degradation.

It turns out that Van Gogh was fond of using the relatively new color, chrome yellow (also here), made from lead chromate. This is an inexpensive pigment that produces a bright orange-yellow (think school bus color), but is prone to darkening. Presumably, Van Gogh choose chrome yellow over the also relatively new cadmium colors (also here) because of their relative expense.

The mystery in the pronounced degree with which Van Gogh’s yellows have been turning brown is apparently due to his penchant for adding white paint, of a kind that contained barium and sulphur, to his yellow. The combination of the other materials accelerated the darkening of the chrome yellow.

Research is continuing into how to stop, and possibly even reverse, the changes to his paintings.

The Van Gogh Museum has for some time been studying his materials, and their sources, in an effort to better conserve the works, and conservators have encountered other uses of fugitive pigments (see my post on the Restoration of Van Gogh’s The Bedroom).

One of the paintings examined in the recent study was Van Gogh’s Bank of the Seine (above). The Van Gogh museum’s page for this painting also has an interesting video about their comparison of the work, and the techniques used, with that of his contemporary, Monet.

[Via io9]

4 Replies to “Van Gogh’s yellows turning brown”

  1. Another fascinating post on art and materials – something which many of us know too little about. I remember going to see the Eva Hesse show in Berkeley and hearing the curator (who should have known better) proclaim that Hesse was the ONLY artist to use unstable materials or materials that she knew would not last. I couldn’t help adding in my two cents worth – I knew about Turner and some other artists who used the then new, fugitive reds and pinks but I didn’t know about Van Gogh. My commentary was not appreciated but I hate it when those who should know better perpetuate artistic myth.

  2. Wow really incredible. It makes perfect sense that the chemicals could prove unstable and have varying effects on one another. Thanks for such an interesting post.

  3. This leads me to wonder about the value of original art vs reproductions, from an aesthetic point of view. With digital photography, it would be possible to copy the paintings, restore the colors in Photoshop, and generate shiny, textured Giclée prints, not readily distinguishable from a comfortable viewing distance from original oils. The galleries in museums could be brightened up with copies that were more true to the original than the original. And we could all see them without having to travel to Amsterdam or Paris.

    It’s heresy, I know.

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