Van Gogh’s Sunflowers at risk of fading away? Red paint in artist’s masterpieces is turning white

Is Van Gogh’s Sunflowers at risk of fading away? Red paint in artist’s masterpieces is turning white due to reaction with the air

  • Red lead pigment used by Vincent van Gogh has been found to be fading
  • Impurities in the paint may have triggered a chemical reaction in sunlight
  • Scientists found a rare lead-based mineral has been forming in the paint
  • This then reacts with carbon dioxide from the air to create white crystals
  • They warn that many of the artist’s paintings may be at risk of this process
  • They examined Wheat Stack Under a Cloudy Sky and found it had faded
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His paintings are some of the most valuable in the world – yet many of them are slowly fading away.

Now scientists have discovered Vincent Van Gogh’s masterpiece’s are falling victim to the artist’s choice of pigments he used in his paint.

They have found that a rare mineral in an intense red-coloured paint used by the Dutch impressionist is turning white as it breaks down into flaky white crystals.

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The colours in Van Gogh's masterpiece Sunflowers, two versions of which are shown above on display at the National Gallery, are feared to have also changed as the yellow and red pigments have degraded over time

The colours in Van Gogh’s masterpiece Sunflowers, two versions of which are shown above on display at the National Gallery, are feared to have also changed as the yellow and red pigments have degraded over time

Samples from Van Gogh’s paintings have been found to contain the lead-based mineral plumbonacrite that reacts with carbon dioxide in the air.

They say this mineral is the missing link that may explain why the red lead paint, known as minimum, is turning white.

FADING LEGACY OF VAN GOGH

Red lead is not the first pigment to be found in Van Gogh’s work to be failing to stand the test of time.

Researchers recently revealed that a red lake pigment he also used has been fading. This had led them to conclude that the blue irises of his Field with Irises near Arles, painted in 1888, were originally a purple colour.

Curators at the Van Gogh Musuem in Amsterdam have also found that the colours in Van Gogh’s Bedroom are also fading during a project to restore the painting.

They found in a series of letters to his brother and sister, Van Gogh described in detail the vivid colours of his room.

This allowed scientists to reconstruct how the painting would have originally looked.

They found that the pale brown floor should have been a richer purple and peach colour while the blue walls were originally an orange-red and violet.

Previous work by Professor Janssens has also shown that a bright yellow paint, known as chrome yellow, in Van Gogh’s paintings has also been changing colour.

When exposed to ultraviolet light, his team found the bright orange-yellow pigment darkened into a chocolate brown colour.

He believes that Van Gogh’s technique of blending white and yellow paint together may actually be to blame for the chemical reactions causing this darkening.

The researchers, from the University of Antwerp, Belgium, studied microscopic paint samples taken from Van Gogh’s Wheat Stack Under a Cloudy Sky, which he painted in 1889.

Dr Koen Janssens, a chemist at the University of Antwerp, said their findings may explain why other paintings by Van Gogh, such as the priceless Sunflowers and The Bedroom, have faded over time.

Speaking to Chemistry World, he said: ‘Normally, the idea is these paintings are there for a hundred years, or 500 years, and they’re static – nothing really changes.

‘But the opposite is actually true when you look in detail.’

The researchers examined a minute flake of paint taken from a globule on the surface of the pond in the artists oil on canvas painting Wheat Stack Under a Cloudy Sky.

The pond originally featured bold red colours that were intended to convey the impression of autumn leaves on the pond.

However, over time the red leaves have been turning grey and then white, taking on the appearance of the clouds in the sky above.

The researchers, whose work is published in the journal Angewandte Chemie, used a technique known as x-ray powder diffraction tomography to study the paint fleck.

They found that at the centre of the fleck, the paint was still a vivid red colour where the original red lead pigment had been protected from the air while the colour changed closer to the surface.

Red lead was thought by much of the art world to be a relatively stable pigment, so the idea that it has been breaking down has surprised many.

The researchers found that around the red pigment in their sample was a layer of plumbonacrite and then around that white crystals of lead carbonates, hydrocerussites and cerssites.

Scientists took a microscopic flake of paint from the pond in Van Gogh's Wheat Stack Under a Cloudy Sky (shown on the left) and found that beneath the surface the vivid red lead pigment originally used remained (top right and bottom right) but had degraded to grey and white colour on painting's surface (bottom centre)

Scientists took a microscopic flake of paint from the pond in Van Gogh’s Wheat Stack Under a Cloudy Sky (shown on the left) and found that beneath the surface the vivid red lead pigment originally used remained (top right and bottom right) but had degraded to grey and white colour on painting’s surface (bottom centre)

Descriptions by Van Gogh of the colour of his lodgings that he painted in The Bedroom show that the floor and walls actually contained more red pigment, giving them more vivid shades than they have today

Descriptions by Van Gogh of the colour of his lodgings that he painted in The Bedroom show that the floor and walls actually contained more red pigment, giving them more vivid shades than they have today

Experts used computer reconstructions to boost the red in Van Gogh's paintings to see how they would have originally looked before they faded under the bright lights that has caused the red pigment to degrade

Experts have used computer reconstructions to boost the red in Van Gogh’s The Bedroom to see how it would have originally looked before they faded under the bright lights that has caused the red pigment to degrade

They believe that sunlight has caused the original red pigment to be converted into plumbonacrite, which in turn reacts with carbon dioxide in the air to form the white crystals.

Professor Janssens and his colleagues propose that impurities in the original red lead pigment, also known as minium, may have triggered the degradation in the first place.

They say a compound known as litharge, a natural lead oxide mineral, is often a remnant of the process of producing red lead pigment.

This mineral is more reactive than the other minerals in red lead and so may have triggered the production of plumbonacrite.

Speaking to Mail Online, Professor Janssens said: ‘It might be that this can be interpreted as an indication of a low quality minium, but this is not certain.

‘There are some indication in the literature that the residual amount of PbO (litharge) is also due to the starting material. Experiments are ongoing to clear this up.’

To make matters worse, however, during restoration efforts of the painting, experts have added zinc white pigments to Wheat Stake Under a Cloudy Sky in an attempt to boost what they believed to be white pigments in the pond.

The red leaves on the pond in Van Gogh's Wheat Stacks Under a Cloudy Sky have faded to white

The red leaves on the pond in Van Gogh’s Wheat Stacks Under a Cloudy Sky have faded to white

Professor Janssens said: ‘The presence of plumbonacrite in paintings or painters materials is very scarce.

‘In our case, the presence of this carbonate-poor lead compound in between the red lead and the carbonate-rich lead white layer strongly suggests that plumbonacrite is present as an intermediate degradation product formed during the whitening of minium.’

The findings could help future attempts to restore Van Gogh’s paintings to their original colours by allowing scientists to work out what the pigments used were.

Museums could also help to slow the fading by changing the environment in which the paintings are being kept.

However, the findings suggest that many of Van Gogh’s most valuable paintings may be under threat.

Professor Janssens said: ‘We know of several in which minium is present at the surface.’

He added that other pigments used by Van Gogh may also be unstable.

He said: ‘We are currently looking together with colleagues from the U.S., Italy and the Netherlands at the instability of the red dye eosine that Van Gogh used to give some of his paintings a red/purple tone and also sometimes to make white areas somewhat pinkish. It fades fast.’

Van Gogh’s paintings are widely considered among the most valuable in the world.

One,  known simply as Irises, is listed among the most expensive paintings ever sold and is thought to be now worth more than £70.6 million.

Van Gogh struggled to sell his paintings during his life and wrestled with mental illness that led to him cutting off his own ear and later shot himself at the age of 37.

It was only after his death that the importance of his work began to be truly recognised and his works are now among the most expensive paintings ever sold.

In 1993 his painting A Wheatfield with Cypresses sold for £36 million.

Philippe Walter, director of the Laboratory of Moleuclar and Structural Archaeology in France, told Chemistry World: ‘For the conservation of works of art, it is important to look at this phenomenon to be sure to take care about the quantity of light [in museums].’

Van Gogh, shown in the self portrait above, used vivid red colours in many of his paintings

Van Gogh's $50 million 'Poppy Flowers', which features red and yellow flowers, was stolen from Cairo's Mohammed Mahmoud Khalil Museum in 2010

Van Gogh, shown in the self portrait on the left, used vivid red colours in many of his paintings, like the $50 million ‘Poppy Flowers’ (right) which was stolen from Cairo’s Mohammed Mahmoud Khalil Museum in 2010

Timelapse of Van Goph’s The Bedroom restoration

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