Why Miró’s yellows have lost their shine | ET REALITY


Van Gogh sunflowers to Edvard Munch”The Scream”, there is no shortage of seminal works of art done in a striking hue known as cadmium yellow. But that riot of color that artists squeezed from their tubes of paint is not necessarily what museum visitors see today: Cadmium yellow’s brilliance often diminishes over time, as the paint fades and becomes chalky.

And it’s not just centuries-old works of art that are affected. A team of art conservators and scientists recently analyzed pieces of degraded cadmium yellow paint taken from pieces painted by Spanish artist Joan Miró in the 1970s. One particular brand of paint was likely most responsible for the degradation seen on the pieces. Looked, the team concluded in a study. published in July in the journal Heritage Science.

Cadmium yellow paint is an amalgam of primarily cadmium and sulfur. It was first marketed in the 1840s and soon gained renown among artists. Miró described the color as “splendid.” Tubes of cadmium yellow paint, including Cadmium Yellow Lemon No.1 produced by Parisian manufacturer Lucien Lefebvre-Foinet, litter Miró’s two studios in Mallorca, Spain.

In 2020, Mar Gómez Lobón, an art conservator based in Mallorca, began researching the paintings that Miró used after settling on the island in the 1950s. An art conservator in the Pilar and Joan Miró Foundation in Mallorca had alerted him that more than 25 pieces in the foundation’s collection painted in the 1970s showed evidence of faded yellow paint.

To investigate the cause of the deterioration and whether it could be related to a particular brand of paint, Gómez Lobón and his colleagues collected small flecks of cadmium yellow paint from three untitled pieces that Miró painted between 1973 and 1978. He also collected small samples from three tubes of paint from the artist’s workshop. Sert Workshop and Son Boter studies, a glass for mixing paint and two palettes. Each sample was about the size of a pinhead.

A microscopic sample of paint is sufficient for many scientific analyses. And analyzing just a speck of paint has clear advantages, said David Muller, a physicist at Cornell University, who was not involved in Miró’s research. Transporting a valuable work of art to a laboratory is logistically complicated. “It has this very sophisticated safety procedure,” Dr. Muller said. But there is much less pressure when working with a paint sample just a thousandth of an inch wide, which is what Dr. Muller and his colleagues did when they studied the degradation of cadmium yellow in “El Grito”.

Ms. Gómez Lobón and her collaborators analyzed the nine samples of Miró’s paintings and study materials, recording how the paint absorbed, reflected and re-emitted different wavelengths of light. That allowed the team to investigate the chemical composition and crystal structure of each sample.

Elemental analyzes revealed that weathered paint samples from all three paints contained primarily cadmium and sulfur, as expected, with traces of zinc. The same mixture was found in paint samples from both palettes and one of the paint tubes. Additionally, the team found that those six samples (from Lucien Lefebvre-Foinet’s gradient paints, palettes, and tube of Cadmium Yellow Lemon No.1) exhibited poor crystallinity. That means the cadmium and sulfur atoms are not perfectly intertwined in their usual hexagonal arrangement, said Daniela Comelli, a materials scientist at the Polytechnic University of Milan and a member of the research team. “There is some disorder.”

The poor crystallinity of cadmium yellow was also believed to be partially responsible for the degradation seen in older works of art by Picasso, Matisse and other artists. (Environmental conditions, particularly humidity and temperature, have also been shown to play a role.) But these new results highlight the fact that this problem persisted until the mid-20th century, which the researchers found surprising.

“You would think the paint manufacturers would have corrected the problem,” Gómez Lobón said. Lucien Lefebvre-Foinet was also a highly respected brand, he said. “This was a very high quality painting.”

In the future, Gómez Lobón plans to catalog the approximately 100 tubes of paint that are still scattered throughout Miró’s studios. He hopes to accurately date Lucien Lefebvre-Foinet’s tubes and better understand how the brand produced his paint, specifically his cadmium yellow. Miró left behind a treasure trove of supplies that should be studied, Gómez Lobón said. “These studies are like a gold mine.”

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