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Why Are the Vibrant Colors of ‘The Scream’ Fading?

New analysis explores why unstable synthetic pigments in the painting are changing color from yellow to white

The Scream (1893) is Edvard Munch's most renowned work. (Public domain via Wikimedia Commons)
smithsonianmag.com

The vibrant colors of Edvard Munch’s most famous painting, The Scream, have faded with time, according to ongoing research conducted at the Scientific Analysis of Fine Art (SAFA) lab in New York City.

Munch’s iconic early Expressionist painting is known for its central character, a pale-faced figure holding his face while he screams. The agonized individual stands on a road overlooking the fjord of Kristiania, now the capital city Oslo, under a dramatic red-and-yellow sunset. But as Sophie Haigney reports for the New York Times, the canvas’ colors were once more saturated. Over the last 127 years, some yellow pigments have faded to white; other signs of degradation are also apparent.

Looking at Munch’s 1910 version of the painting under an electron microscope, researchers had a nano-scale view of the state of the artwork. What they found was discouraging: crystals growing like tiny spikes up from the paint.

“This is really, really not what you want to be seeing,” says SAFA’s president, Jennifer Mass, to the Times.

Munch painted The Scream at a time when the paint-making industry was undergoing a rapid transition. Prior to the 1880s, paints were mixed in artists’ studios with hand-ground materials, but toward the end of the 19th century, progress in the chemical industry brought tubes of premade paint to store shelves. (Today, the Munch Museum in Oslo houses more than 1,400 such paint tubes owned by the artist.) Highly saturated factory-made pigments lent artists’ creations vibrancy, but these paints were rarely, if ever, tested for longevity.

“One of the disadvantages of living in a very changing environment where pigments were very new was that they didn’t always know how things would turn out,” explained Ralph Haswell, principal scientist at Shell Global Solutions, which helped study the degradation of Vincent van Gogh’s paints, to the New York Times’ Nina Siegal in 2013. “The chemical industry was growing hugely and they came up with all kinds of colors, but you never knew how long they would remain stable. Some pigments weren’t stable.”

Vincent van Gogh, "The Bedroom"
Earlier research revealed that Vincent van Gogh's The Bedroom has similarly faded over time. (Public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

As researchers now try to work in reverse and imagine how original paintings may have looked, Impressionist and Expressionist masterpieces pose an added challenge. As Mass tells the Times, a tree in a Matisse or Munch painting was not necessarily green, as these artists didn’t aim to simply replicate reality. By analyzing the chemicals that remain in paint tubes and paintings, researchers can peer into the past and gauge what colors graced canvases canvas more than a century ago.

In the case of The Scream, yellow cadmium sulfide in the sunset has broken down into two white chemicals, cadmium sulfate and cadmium carbonate. Some of van Gogh’s work has undergone similar changes—his famous The Bedroom, featuring a goldenrod bed in a light blue room, once featured light purple walls. But the red pigment degraded faster than the blue, leaving behind the color we see today. In other van Gogh paintings, chrome yellow is turning brown.

The new analysis of cadmium sulfide in Munch’s work has implications for other paintings made with the same pigment at the turn of the 20th century. When researchers identify paintings that have undergone degradation, they can then digitally recreate the original appearance of the works. Some day, the digital reconstructions may accompany the displayed paintings in augmented reality scenarios projected by mobile devices.

“The idea is to try, in a sort of virtual way, to reverse time,” explains University of Antwerp chemist Koen Janssens, who has studied the pigments of van Gogh and Matisse, among others, to the Times.

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