#weekendusers The quest to preserve “The Scream”


The yellow pigment in the masterpiece “The Scream” is fading. This weekend, an international team of chemists is on beamline ID21 trying to find out why, in order to preserve it from degradation.

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The bold and jarring colours of “The Scream” painting, together with the landscape and the image of a person screaming, have made this masterpiece become a universal symbol of angst and existential dread. Edvard Munch, its author, painted four versions of the work from 1893 to 1910. Environmental factors such as light, moisture and other additives to the paint are believed to have contributed to the fading of the yellow colours of this iconic work of art.

This weekend, chemists from the University of Perugia and SMAArt centre/CNR-ISTM (Italy) and the University of Antwerp (Belgium) are analysing the chemical and physical factors that presumably play a key role in the deterioration of cadmium sulfide, one of the yellow pigments (more commonly known as “cadmium yellow”) used by Munch in “The Scream”. “We know that the fading of the original cadmium sulfide is due to an oxidation reaction forming the white cadmium sulfate.  However we are still trying to understand how light, humidity and other ingredients in the paint might influence the colour change”, explains Letizia Monico, researcher fellow of the University of Perugia in charge of the experiment.

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From left to right: Annalisa Chieli, Letizia Monico and Gert Nuyts on beamline ID21. @ESRF/C. Argoud

In this experiment, the chemists will investigate both oil paint model samples composed of cadmium yellow in mixture with different additives before and after aging with light and moisture and minute fragments obtained from two different versions of “The Scream”, that are on display in the National Gallery of Oslo and the Munch Museum (Norway), respectively. “In our aged model paints we are expecting to find the presence of the same degradation products that we might identify in the original micro-samples”, says Annalisa Chieli, PhD student at the University of Perugia. The team hopes to find out whether certain compounds and environmental factors play a key role on the alteration mechanism of the cadmium yellow.

“The ultimate purpose is to understand better the degradation mechanism of the pigments present in such paintings and use this information to preserve these works of arts for future generations.”, explains Gert Nuyts, a PhD student and technician from the University of Antwerp.

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From left to right: Gert, Annalisa and Letizia in the experimental hutch on ID21. @ESRF/C. Argoud.

The beamline ID21 at the ESRF has proved crucial for their research this time and in the past. “It is one of the few beamlines in the world where we can perform imaging X-ray absorption and fluorescence spectroscopy analysis of the entire sample, at low energy and with sub-micrometer spatial resolution”, explains Monico.  At the beamline, the experimental set-up is designed to avoid the damage of the samples.

100 microns of precious art

“The Scream” is not a painting that has travelled much. One of the versions was sold privately and the other three are kept in the Munch Museum and the National Gallery of Norway. However, precious tiny samples, with sizes below 500 microns, have travelled on two occasions, to the ESRF and to the Advanced Photon Source in Chicago (APS). To the naked eye they don’t look like more than a bit of dust, but once they go under the microscope the yellow tinge of the painting suddenly appears.

Under the microscope, a fragment from the painting of "The Scream" of the National Gallery of Norway, in Oslo. @L. Monico.

Despite the paintings not leaving Norway, the team at the ESRF represents a truly international cooperation to stop, or at least slow down, the degradation process of the pigment. The Italo-Belgian team on the beamline received the samples from collaborators Jennifer Mass and Adam Finnefrock, researchers at Scientific Analysis of Fine Art in the United States, who liaise with the curators in Norway and have also conducted research on cadmium sulfide degradation in works by Henri Matisse, the French painter.

Text by Montserrat Capellas Espuny

Top image: Detail from the painting "The Scream" by Edvard Munch, 1893.