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university of antwerp van gogh •

Scientists have finally solved one of the many puzzles about Vincent Van Gogh’s paintings. The researchers from the University of Antwerp, the Netherlands, have figured out why the red lead paint in many of Van Gogh’s painting is turning white and fading.

The red paint isn’t the only paint in Van Gogh’s paintings that is acting peculiar, though. It appears that the color yellow is turning brown and that the red lead paint is turning light whenever it is exposed to bright lights.

In order to come up with an explanation, the scientists employed the help of X-rays. They took a minuscule piece of paint chip and while keeping it under a microscope they fired X-rays through the sample to see what minerals it had inside.

This helped them find that the red lead was covered in a thing called degradation product and also something called plumbonacrite. Plumbonacrite is causing chemical buildup inside the red lead paint particles when light is shined on it.

What was really stunning about this particular discovery is that plumbonacrite has never, until now, been reported in paintings dating from before the mid-20th century. Finding it in paint coming from paintings in this time period is challenging a lot of the information scientists have about the time and the paints used by artists from the mid-20th century.

While the scientists seem to have figured out the reason why Van Gogh’s paintings are turning white, the red paint at least, they are still stumped when it comes to Renoir’s Madame Leon Clapisson from 1883. Apparently, this famous painting is not fading due to the same reason. The red color used in there comes from a more natural source, which is still used in fabric and even food dyes today: the insect called cochineal.

When it comes to red paint made with cochineal, scientists speculate that when the color is exposed to light, the particles inside the paint separate into organic and inorganic compounds and that is why Renoir’s painting has its red colors turning into a mellow grey color. The researchers are trying to better understand this process and hope that one day they will be able to restore the color red in paintings.

Image Source: Wikipedia

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