Scientists Confirm Colors Used in Matisse and Van Gogh Paintings Are Fading

Henri Matisse, Le bonheur de vivre (The Joy of Life), 1905. Collection of the Barnes Foundation, Philadelphia.

Scientists working in France, Belgium, and the United States have all confirmed that paintings by both Henri Matisse and Vincent Van Gogh are losing their bright yellow hues, which are slowly fading to more beige tones which give the works radically different appearances.

The loss of brightness is the result of a cadmium yellow pigment that was used on many Impressionist, post-Impressionist, and early modernist canvases, which contains properties that oxidize in the light, stripping the paint of its vibrant color.

The widespread use of the pigment means that the fading has implications for many masterpieces of the era.

Researchers studying both The Joy of Life by Matisse and Flowers in Blue Vase by Van Gogh posit that large areas of the works looked significantly different in color and general appearance when they were created a century ago.

“The results of this study reveal how critical it is to understand not only the chemistry of the discoloured paint,” associate professor of the University of Delaware Jennifer Mass told the Telegraph, “but also the chemistry used to prepare the paints that were available to the turn of the 20th century’s most treasured artists.”

A bright yellow pigment in <em>The Joy of Life</em> by Henri Matisse has transformed over the years. Image courtesy of the Winterthur Museum, Delaware.

A bright yellow pigment in The Joy of Life by Henri Matisse has transformed over the years. Image courtesy of the Winterthur Museum, Delaware.

Interestingly, the cadmium yellow pigment seems to decline at similar rates regardless of factors like geographic location.

“I find it striking that in paintings of different artists and different geographical origins that (presumably) were conserved for around 100 years in various museum conditions, very similar chemical transformations are taking place,” noted Professor Koen Janssens of the University of Antwerp in Belgium.

The cadmium yellow is not the only pigment suffering these effects. The red pigments used in many of Van Gogh’s paintings are also losing their luster thanks to the compound minium, which scientists have found “whitens” under light. Like cadmium, paint containing minium (sometimes known as red lead) was once widely employed by painters.

Although the damage that has already taken place to the paint cannot be reversed, researchers are examining ways to minimize future deterioration, which may include encouraging museums to tweak their lighting and humidity levels.

Follow Artnet News on Facebook:

Want to stay ahead of the art world? Subscribe to our newsletter to get the breaking news, eye-opening interviews, and incisive critical takes that drive the conversation forward.
Article topics