Winterthur Scientist Heads International Team Discovering Why Henri Matisse's Magnificent Yellows Turn to Blasé Beige

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Jennifer Mass., Ph.D., Leads International Team Featured in New Article Revealing Why Matisse's Brilliant Yellow is Fading; They Call for New Protocols Identifying "At-Risk" Paintings

"The Joy of Life" by Henri Matisse, 1905-06, The Barnes Foundation, Philadelphia

There is a growing realization among museum scientists that this phenomenon is affecting billions of dollars of our global cultural heritage.

An international team led by Winterthur Museum's Senior Scientist Jennifer Mass, Ph.D., announced new findings featured in the June 2015 issue of "Applied Physics A" revealing why a bright yellow pigment favored by master artists like Henri Matisse degrades to drab beige. In the article, the team calls for the development of an international protocol to identify and help preserve 'at risk' paintings.

“The results of this study reveal how critical it is to understand not only the chemistry of the discolored paint, but also the chemistry used to prepare the paints that were available to the turn of the 20th-century’s most enduring artists,” said Mass, Senior Scientist at Winterthur's Scientific Research and Analysis Laboratory and Associate Professor at the Winterthur/University of Delaware Program in Art Conservation. "Our study points the way toward several important areas requiring further investigation, among the most critical of which is developing a protocol for identifying the 'at risk' paintings that are in their earliest stages of degradation, even before it is visible to the naked eye, so that such works can be placed in the proper display environments that will prevent their degradation from worsening."

The cadmium yellow favored by Impressionist, post-Impressionist, and early modernist masters poses a risk to many masterpieces of our cultural heritage, the study notes. The study focused on pigments from Henri Matisse's "The Joy of Life," at the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia, and built conclusive evidence on earlier investigations also involving the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility. Among the examined paintings are those by famous artists such as Matisse, James Ensor, and Vincent Van Gogh.

Mass said over the past decade there has been a growing realization among museum scientists that this disfiguring phenomenon is affecting billions of dollars of our global cultural heritage. She said the findings aid in understanding how to digitally restore damaged paintings and create a computer-generated image that reveals the artists’ original intent.

“As a chemist, I find it striking that in paintings of different artists and different geographical origins that (presumably) were conserved for circa 100 years in various museum conditions, very similar chemical transformations are taking place,”said Koen Janssens, Chemistry Professor at the University of Antwerp in Belgium. “This will allow us to predict with higher confidence what may be happening to these works of art in the coming decades.”

The article is “2D X-ray and FTIR micro-analysis of the degradation of cadmium yellow pigment in paintings of Henri Matisse,” E. Pouyet, M. Cotte, B. Fayard, M. Salomé, F. Meirer, A. Mehta, E.S. Uffelman, A. Hull, F. Vanmeert, J. Kieffer, M. Burghammer, K. Janssens, F. Sette, J. Mass, Applied Physics A, DOI: 10.1007/s00339-015-9239-4. Or:

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