The fading yellow of Matisse

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  • Published: Jul 8, 2015
  • Author: Steve Down
  • Channels: MRI Spectroscopy / NMR Knowledge Base / UV/Vis Spectroscopy / Atomic / Infrared Spectroscopy / X-ray Spectrometry / Proteomics / Chemometrics & Informatics / Raman / Base Peak

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Scientists have uncovered how the bright yellow paint used by Henri Matisse in his painting The Joy of Life has faded to a sad beige, while calling for more international cooperation to serve the world’s cultural heritage.

The original pigment was cadmium sulphide, known to artists as cadmium yellow, but had been transformed over time to cadmium carbonate and cadmium sulphate. Building on earlier work on this and other paintings by Matisse, the research team used a combination of X-ray and IR techniques to show that these transformation products are formed by the action of light rather than being trace residues from the original paint.

The 2D full-field X-ray near edge structure imaging, 2D micro-X-ray diffraction, X-ray fluorescence and Fourier transform IR imaging data were described and interpreted in Applied Physics A. They identified and mapped the exact locations of cadmium carbonates, cadmium chlorides, cadmium oxalates, cadmium sulphates, and cadmium sulphides in the painting.

The results will help conservators to restore this painting, and others, to their former glory and shows how they must be safely stored and displayed. But author Jennifer Mass, who is a senior scientist at Winterthur Museum in Delaware goes further, calling for an international effort to identify the most at-risk paintings around the world and take steps to preserve them.

"Our study points the way toward several important areas requiring further investigation, among the most critical of which is developing a protocol for dentifying the 'at risk' paintings that are in their earliest stages of degradation, even before it is visible to the naked eye, so that such works can be placed in the proper display environments that will prevent their degradation from worsening," she said.

"It also provides us with the information needed to digitally restore the damaged paintings, creating a computer-generated image that reveals the artists’ original intent."

Image: courtesy Winterthur Museum, Delaware

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