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It is a sad fact of life that the pigments used by some of the world’s most important nineteenth century artists have faded, and the vibrant colours artists used appear less bright when we view them today. This process cannot be reversed. But as Andrew Davies, an in-house Art Expert with AXA ART and member of the AXA Research Fund judging panel, explains, exciting new research could help to better preserve works of art for future generations to enjoy.

In a conversation with Willem van Gogh, of the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam, (he is in fact the artist’s great grand-nephew)-I learned that the some of the most reproduced and bestselling Van Gogh images are of his Almond Blossom paintings; made between 1888 and 1890. Correspondence in the museum’s archives describes the pink flowers set against a clear blue sky; today, however, the painting’s blossom appears to be almost white.

While curators and conservators are expert in protecting art from damage, many paintings experience fading and colour changes over time because of exposure to light – a process known as photochemical deterioration. Managing the risk of light exposure is a major challenge for museums like the Van Gogh Museum.

Each year, AXA’s Research Fund offers a range of grants, one of which is the AXA ART Fellowship; an award for a rigorous scientific research project with an art-related focus conducted over two years.

The shortlist is judged on both the scientific excellence and innovativeness of each project, as well has how potentially beneficial the project is to society and how results can be disseminated as widely as possible. It is important to note that AXA is totally impartial and does not seek to influence results or otherwise benefit from them.

In 2018, the grant was awarded to Gauthier Patin for his PhD research entitled ‘Development & application of an Imaging Micro Fading Test, (iMFT), to assess the light fading on Van Gogh’s paintings’.

The Van Gogh Museum has the challenge of managing the risk of light exposure causing colour change in Van Gogh paintings.

Scientists have identified the light-sensitive pigments responsible for these colour changes and investigated their degradation mechanisms, but knowledge of the timescale of this issue remains limited.

The aim of Gauthier Patin’s research was to develop an accurate and reliable fading model that would benefit the conservation decision-making and long-term preservation of Van Gogh paintings as well as, importantly, those of his contemporaries who used the same pigments.

The results of the project should be able to predict any future colour changes as well as looking back in time to ‘re-discover’ lost colours - potentially informing the viewer of the artist’s original colour intention. The Almond Blossom paintings are a perfect example.

Van Gogh mostly used the same oil colours as his fellow artists of the late nineteenth century. Almost as prolific a letter-writer as he was a painter, Van Gogh wrote hundreds of letters to family and friends in which he details the colours and pigments he was using to create some of his most famous and well-loved works of art. This valuable archive material, as well as subsequent research by scientists and curators, makes Van Gogh’s works ideal subjects for a research project of this kind.

The fading of colours is an irreversible process; once a colour has faded, it remains that way.

Processes that take place over time, such as fading, are not an insurable peril; the natural behaviour of the colour to fade is an “inherent vice.”  

And sadly, there are – as yet – no known remedial treatments.

The aim of the project is to help conservators slow down and limit the future light-fading degradation of the works of Van Gogh and his contemporaries – arguably some of the most valuable and important artworks ever created – and preserve them for the benefit of future generations.

This project also will enhance and facilitate digital colour reconstruction processes affording the viewer a better idea of how the paintings looked when Van Gogh first painted them.

The innovative aspect of the research lies in the development of an improved micro-fading device that will enable light sensitivity analyses of the coloured surface.

In his interim report of September 31, 2019, Gauthier says that he has developed a micro-fading device that meets the required level of performance. He says researchers have taken measurements according to the Blue Wool Standards – internationally recognised standards on the light fastness of materials – which will enable comparison of the results with data from previous studies.

This fundamental step will not only accelerate progress on this project but will enable other, similar projects to be undertaken. Gauthier has increased his knowledge on colour-change phenomena and is currently assessing and testing the developments achieved on the micro-fading device.

Once the study is complete, Gauthier will communicate his findings to research peers via articles, conferences and presentations in the normal manner.

Art experts and connoisseurs are well used to the fact that the colours in certain paintings will fade over time. We may never be able to see the colours artists like Van Gogh used in exactly the way they were painted onto the canvass more than 100 years ago. But exciting research like this should help to preserve the works of Van Gogh and his contemporaries for the enjoyment and benefit of generations to come.


This article was written by Andrew Davies, Survey Manager & Art Expert, Global Fine Art and Species.


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