What Kind of Light Can Kill Van Gogh’s Sunflowers?
STORY BY Candace Bryan
Published: April 15, 2013
Delicate things often need to be kept in certain protective environments. This is why guitars are stored in climate-controlled rooms at Guitar Center and wine is typically kept in cool, dark cellars. It seems obvious that old paintings would also need to be kept away from the elements. But what kind of environment is perfect for a painting? Recent observations have shown that even light may be detrimental to the preservation of certain works of art.
Recently, people at Amsterdam’s Van Gogh Museum have begun to notice serious alteration in the coloring of one of the artist’s most iconic paintings, Sunflowers. And as it turns out, that painting isn’t alone. Many of Van Gogh’s works are starting to exhibit major changes in the parts of them where there is yellow. The yellow is turning darker shades of green and brown.
Conservators were puzzled, so they turned to scientists at Belgium’ University of Antwerp to solve their mystery. While many stories have reported that the results of their studies found LED light exposure was to blame for the paintings’ discoloration, this isn’t actually what they found.
Researchers at the Belgian university actually found out something much more specific to the yellow colors used in many painting, including those by Van Gogh and Cezanne. A popular pigment used by these artists is called “chrome yellow.” Certain shades of this pigment, especially lighter ones, have high levels of sulfur contained in them. It’s this sulfur content that is being labeled the culprit behind the darkening of the paintings, as it was found to easily react when exposed to any light. This explains also why darker shades of yellow (with a lower sulfur content) have been less affected by discoloration.
Unfortunately, because the darkening of Van Gogh’s paintings has been caused chemical reactions, there is nothing conservators can do to reverse the effects. Any possible process would risk doing serious harm to the historical works. However, though there is little to be done about current damages, the authorities at the Van Gogh Museum are taking these new discoveries into consideration and considering altering the museum’s environment, in order to prevent further alterations.
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