David and Art - Sunflowers

Feb 4, 2019

Taking care of art often involves science that didn't exist when a threatened piece was created.

The other day my daughter brought home a painting from school that she had done.  Her class was studying the postimpressionist apparently and, as art students have done for centuries, she had copied the work of a master:  in this case Vincent Van Gogh.  She'd produced a very good copy of his famous painting Sunflowers.

Van Gogh originally painted this and several other sunflower paintings in 1889 when he lived in the French town of Arles.  He was hoping vaguely to establish some sort of artists colony there with fellow painter Paul Gauguin.  (Gauguin himself painted one picture during this time of Van Gogh painting sunflowers.) Several of Van Gogh’s most famous paintings are from this short period in his short life, many of them featuring distinctive shades of vivid yellow.

Last month the wonderful Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam announced it was taking down its version of Sunflowers—thought to be the fourth one the artist painted—so conservators could more closely investigate some worrisome trends in the painting.   Last year, a new scanning technology was used on it and it was discovered that the paint itself is chemically changing; and even though the changes aren’t yet visible to the human eye, they will be. If it’s left unattended, the vibrant yellows for which the work is so well known will eventually transform to a drab and muddy brown.

A conservator at the Museum said a similar pigment problem is happening to a lot of paintings from that time.   Van Gogh’s paintings however may offer a better way to discover exactly what’s happening.  More than any other artist of his day, in letters to friends and family Van Gogh wrote in detail about his colors, where he was buying the chemicals to make them and exactly which ones he was using in which paintings.  It was actually his reds that began fading first, sometimes even within his lifetime; and he knew it.  “Paintings fade like flowers,” he wrote his brother, all the more reason for him to use colors boldly.

The Van Gogh museum said that after extensive research into the condition of the paint, the work will be restored by  the labs at the museum.  As of now the target date for returning it to the galleries is the 22nd of this month. 

What do we learn from this? Well, one thing is that if you’re getting a degree in chemistry, you have a place in the art world.  Another thing it show us is that art requires a commitment that extends through time. Whether it’s painting by an old master, a mural on a wall by a visiting artist passing through town, or an artistic lighting installation on a bridge, making the art is only the beginning.  It’s up to us today to take care of the art we enjoy and make sure it will be around to inspire and enlighten others in the future.