“The Scream” is fading. Scientists study tiny paint samples using advanced technology – X-rays, a laser beam and a powerful electron microscope. They are trying to find out why fragments of the famous painting by Edward Munch, painted in 1910, from bright orange-yellow to white as ivory.

Scientists from New York and experts from the Munch Museum in Oslo have been working on the canvas since 2012, trying to find out and tell the story of color. The study also provides insight into Munch and its methods of work, laying out a road map for restorers who are trying to prevent further changes. It also helps viewers and art historians understand what one of the world’s most famous paintings might have originally looked like.
"The Scream" is fading. A new analysis has pointed to the reason
Edward Munk, “Scream” (1910). Munch Museum, Oslo.

The art world is increasingly turning to the laboratory to find out what is happening to paintings of the late 19th and early 20th century. Yellow on Vincent van Gogh’s canvases has sometimes turned brown, and the purple shades have somewhere “gone” into blue. The Dutchman’s work has been widely studied, but less is known about Munch’s palette. Now scientists, using the latest technology and tools, are making new discoveries.

The team of the Laboratory for Scientific Analysis of Painting in Harlem, studying the “Scream” under the direction of Jennifer Mass, found that under a microscope the surface of the painting resembles a cluster of stalagmites. The nanocrystals growing on the canvas from the Munch Museum are clear evidence of the degradation of the colorful layer near the mouth of the central figure, in the sky and water.

"The Scream" is fading. A new analysis has pointed to the reason
The fading process of the Scream from the Munch Museum: a fragment of the painting today is on the top right; on the bottom right is a digital reconstruction of what it might look like. Source: Munch Museum / The New York Times

Conservators and researchers at the Munch Museum contacted Dr. Mass because she studied cadmium yellow at the work of Henri Matisse and her laboratory has high-quality scientific instruments. The museum, which is moving into a new building later this year, needs to find out how best to exhibit the painting, taking into account both its conservation and viewing comfort.

The experts have analyzed the materials used by Munch more fully, and this spring they are going to reveal the detailed story of the Scream. Dr. Mass’s team was able to narrow down the selection of paints used by the artist by studying his tubes, about 1400 of which are kept in the Oslo museum. Over time, cadmium yellow sulfide oxidized into two white chemical compounds – cadmium sulfate and cadmium carbonate – under environmental influence.

According to Jennifer Mass, the analysis showed that similar phenomena are observed in 20 percent of impressionist and expressionist paintings created between 1880 and 1920. In fact, these problems can affect all the works whose authors used certain materials.

"The Scream" is fading. A new analysis has pointed to the reason
Dr. Jennifer Mass, president of the Laboratory for Scientific Analysis of Painting in Harlem. Photo: Thomas Prior / The New York Times

Colours in paintings of the end of XIX – beginning of XX century fade especially quickly due to changes in the technology of production of paints. Previously, they were made by grinding minerals extracted from the ground or dyes made from plants and insects. The industrial revolution led to the production of synthetic pigments such as cadmium or chrome yellow, which artists mixed with oil and fillers. Artists began experimenting with these synthetic pigments, which sometimes turned out randomly and were not tested for longevity, but were exceptionally bright and formed the shining palettes of Fauvism, postimpressionism and modernism.

At that time, many artists were abandoning traditional painting techniques, says Lena Stringari, chief restorer at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, who studied colour and pigment changes in Van Gogh’s work. “Many masters have worked in the open air and experimented with different theories of colours and colours,” she said. – It was an explosion of colour and a rejection of academism”.

It made the new pigments popular, but they were unpredictable, Dr. Mass stressed. “We can’t say, ‘Oh, it’s a tree, so we know the leaves will be green,'” she explained. – Because Matisse or Munch doesn’t have to, and here we have to rely on science.”

"The Scream" is fading. A new analysis has pointed to the reason
Digital reconstruction of the picture: scientists believe that the purple shades turn into blue
"The Scream" is fading. A new analysis has pointed to the reason
“The Arles Bedroom” (1888) by Vincent Van Gogh is the way we used to see it at the Artist Museum in Amsterdam.

Research has certainly changed the way art historians view some of Van Gogh’s works. The Artist’s Museum in Amsterdam and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York have in recent years organized exhibitions focusing on the vanishing shades in his paintings. “This is something that we’ve only really realized in the last 10 years. Our thinking has been influenced by research that has focused specifically on technical aspects,” admits Theo Medendorp, art historian and senior research fellow at the Van Gogh Museum.

Interestingly, Van Gogh himself was one of the artists who knew the pitfalls of the new pigments. “I just checked: all the colors that Impressionism made fashionable, unstable – he wrote to his brother Theo in 1888. – There’s no point in using them, time will only soften them more.”

“Paintings fade like flowers,” he remarked later.

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