Daring. Dazzling. Degrading? Abounding in bright colors and bold brushstrokes, Vincent Van Gogh’s uniquely creative work has withstood much criticism, and his Pietà also depicts a Truth that will never pass away. But little did he know that, in contrast, his pigments were extremely susceptible and would quickly breakdown. In this way, he was not alone; other 19th century artists (i.e. Renoir) dabbled with similar vulnerable pigments, particularly reds.
Some red pigments—like red lake—were shiny and alluring, but faded oh-so-fast, even during Van Gogh’s own lifetime. They were made either from the cochineal insect or eosin, a fabricated dye. The artist’s pink rose blossoms faded to white…his purple irises turned blue as their red fleeted away. Now, art restorers can identify Van Gogh’s original colors using X-ray fluorescence spectroscopy, in which they scan residual elements left on the canvas. Eosin has bromine in its structure; as it degrades that bromine is left behind. So, where there are traces of bromine, there probably were reds that have since disappeared.
Red lead can also go dead! Too much light basically blanches it white. How does one know if it’s read lead or lead white? For super-sleuthing this one, X-ray diffraction aids in sensing the crystalline structure of each mineral; red will be different than white.
Hide-and-go-seek pigments could have very detrimental effects to a painting. Can you imagine his Pietà without the hauntingly illustrative reds that adorn Christ’s wounded head? Color moves us. Here, Van Gogh’s reds illuminate Christ’s suffering for the Kingdom while Mary’s lips portray her silent docility, for she allowed the Word in her arms to speak of what true sacrificial love means.
Thanks to our wonderful restorers, this masterpiece—donated by the Archdiocese of New York and restored by the California Chapter in 2001—still reveals to each Vatican visitor the message of everlasting love through the massive brushwork of the Dutch painter.
Van Gogh once wrote to his brother, “Paintings fade like flowers…all the more reason to boldly use them; time will only soften them too much.” His fading pigments exemplify that, indeed, “the grass withers and the flowers fall,” yet the subject matter of his Pietà illustrates that “the Word of God endures forever” (Is 40:8).