One of Vincent Van Gogh’s Sunflower paintings hangs in the National Gallery in London. You can go into that gallery for free and stand closer to it than the artist did when he painted it. You can study the brush strokes and the colours. Unfortunately, it’s a sad, faded flower, which has been damaged by age. Its vibrancy and life have been drained from it and the sunflowers in the painting are a dull brown, like a field full of unharvested sunflowers in Arles, gradually burning up in the relentless sun.
I’ve been to Arles. I’ve seen the sunflower fields that grow in abundance in the area. I was there just after the bulk of these crops had been harvested, so I not only saw some bright examples of the real flowers, but also some faded, past-their-prime ones. I have a feeling I know what Vincent was trying to capture on the canvas. Arguably he did, but the ravages of time mean that you can hardly tell now.
Here is (approximately) how the painting looks today:
If you look at the petals in close up, it can’t be denied. The petals are brown. Look at the close up below.
How did this happen? Well, at the time that Van Gogh was painting this canvas (1888), one of the new yellow pigments he used was called Chrome Yellow. It’s made from Lead Chromate, so it’s toxic and this pigment is no longer used for that reason.
Lead Chromate reacts with air and oxidises, turning a yellow pigment into a dull brown. Here’s a swatch of (approximately) how Chrome Yellow looks fresh from the tube:
Ironically, exposure to sunlight also adversely affects the colour of this pigment, over time.
It’s unlikely that this great work of art by one of our most beloved artists is going to be restored any time soon. Even if the task were to be attempted, nobody in good conscience could advocate using a toxic pigment in the restoration. A close substitute would have to suffice (probably a Cadmium Yellow, even though that is toxic to some degree as well).
That got me to wondering what the painting might have looked like when first painted. Without doing a serious digital restoration of a high resolution colour photograph, we will never be able to visualise that with anything like accuracy or fidelity, but a few brief minutes with Paint.NET can give a quick and dirty rendition of the effect. So, for your viewing pleasure, I now unveil this rough impression of Van Gogh’s Sunflowers Re-Chromed. I hope you enjoy it.
It makes me smile to think how the painting might have originally been.
(OK, OK, I know it’s as coarse as you can get and the original painting would have had much more subtle blends of the yellow pigments, but I was curious 🙂 )
For more information about this fugitive pigment, see this excellent web site:
Visit the National Gallery online: http://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/vincent-van-gogh-sunflowers
This is an excellent discussion about the potential symbolic meanings of the painting (e.g. happiness): http://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/learn-about-art/paintings-in-depth/sunflowers-symbols-of-happiness
Incidentally, the astute reader will notice an obvious influence in my choice of web site background colour. I got close, I think. 🙂
EDIT: Researchers have discovered that the browning of the yellows is due to UV light. They also discovered a hitherto unknown chemical reaction was at the heart of the matter. Vincent’s practice of mixing yellow with white apparently made the browning worse, over time, but the good news is that the browning takes place in a very thin region of the paint where the paint surface meets the varnish. Below that, the colour remains true to the original. Scientists are now studying ways of reversing the oxidation through reduction reactions.
Read more here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-12453610