Scientists from the University of Perugia (Italy), CNR (Italy), University of Antwerp, the ESRF and DESY, have discovered how masterpieces degrade over time in a new study with mock-up paints carried out at synchrotrons ESRF and DESY. Humidity, coupled with light, appear to be the culprits.
The Scream by Munch, Flowers in a blue vase by Van Gogh or Joy of Life by Matisse, all have something in common: their cadmium yellow pigment. Throughout the years, this colour has faded into a whitish tone and, in some instances, crusts of the paint have arisen, as well as changes in the morphological properties of the paint, such as flaking or crumbling. Conservators and researchers have come to the rescue though, and they are currently using synchrotron techniques to study in depth these sulphide pigments and to find a solution to preserve them in the long run.
“This research has allowed us to make some progress. However, it is very difficult for us to pinpoint to what causes the yellow to go white as we don’t have all the information about how or where the paintings have been kept since they were done in the 19th century”, explains Letizia Monico, scientist from the University of Perugia and the CNR-ISTM. Indeed, limited knowledge of the environmental conditions (e.g., humidity, light, temperature…) in which paintings were stored or displayed over extended periods of time and the heterogeneous chemical composition of paint layers (often rendered more complex by later restoration interventions) hamper a thorough understanding of the overall degradation process.