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X-ray imaging reveals why this 17th century painted yellow rose lost its luster

Still Life with Flowers and a Watch have degraded, giving the rose a flatter appearance—the opposite of the 3D illusory effect intended by the artist.”>
Enlarge / The pigments used to create the yellow rose in Abraham Mignon’s Still Life with Flowers and a Watch have degraded, giving the rose a flatter appearance—the opposite of the 3D illusory effect intended by the artist.

The 17th century still-life painter Abraham Mignon was known for his depictions of flowers, fruit, forests, and grottoes, among other objects. But over time, certain pigments have degraded to such an extent as to alter the artist’s intent. Most notably, a yellow rose prominently featured in Mignon’s Still Life with Flowers and a Watch has become flattened and monochrome, particularly compared to the other blooms featured in the painting.

A team of Dutch and Belgian scientists used chemical and optical imaging techniques to examine the elemental distribution of the various pigments, according to a recent paper published in the journal Science Advances. In this way, they could infer Mignon’s original painting technique—specifically how the artist built up layers to create what would have been a 3D appearance for the original rose.

According to the authors, over time, artist pigments and binders in oil paintings inevitably deteriorate when exposed to external factors such as light, relative humidity, temperature, and/or exposure to solvents, as well as incompatible pigment mixtures. The result was discoloration and color changes that can affect the paint’s structural integrity, causing such defects as loss of transparency, brittleness, or micro-cracks.

Examples of this kind of degradation include the discoloration of a blue glass pigment Rembrandt used in several paintings; the fading of light-sensitive pigments—Prussian blues, organic yellow, and red lake pigments—and the darkening of chrome and cadmium yellow in the works of Edvard Munch, Vincent van Gogh, and Pablo Picasso, among other great artists.

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Still Life with Flowers and a Watch. (a) The full painting; (b) detail of the yellow rose; and (c) elemental distribution image of arsenic.”>
Enlarge / Detailed elemental distribution images for (a) arsenic, (b) calcium, (c) iron, (d) sulfur, (e) lead, and (f) copper.
N. de Keyser et al., 2022

The calcium distribution suggested that Mignon also likely used a translucent pigment known as yellow lake, which is difficult to identify once it has faded. As for the iron distribution map, it suggested a single oval-shaped under-painting applied at an earlier stage to mark the planned position of the flower.

Based on their analysis, the authors concluded that Mignon had employed a three-step method used by many still-life painters from this period. The artist would first block the position of the flower with a monochrome underpainting and then flesh out the details by applying semi-transparent paints such as glazes for the shadows. Contemporary still-life instructions for artists recommended specific pigments (such as yellow lake for reflections) when rendering yellow roses. Mignon seems to have hewed closely to this well-documented process, which explains why the yellow rose degraded more than the other flowers in the painting.

“Both pigment mixtures that were used for creating either the shadows on the flower or the bright yellow highlights degraded or faded, and while these paint layers were intentionally already thinly applied, conforming to the painting technique of still-life painters, both have caused an increased visibility of the underlying, monochrome yellow ocher paint layer, which is now responsible for the overall color appearance of the rose,” the authors concluded. “This resulted in a flatter (less 3D)-looking flower as subtle transitions defining the body of the flower can no longer be perceived, which is the reverse optical effect originally intended by Mignon.”

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DOI: Science Advances, 2022. 10.1126/sciadv.abn6344  (About DOIs).