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The photodegradation of cadmium yellow paints in Henri Matisse’s Le Bonheur de vivre (1905–1906)


Evidence for the alteration of the yellow paints in Henri Matisse’s Le Bonheur de vivre (1905–1906, The Barnes Foundation) has been observed since the 1990s. The changes in this iconic work of Matisse’s Fauvist period include lightening, darkening, and flaking of the yellow paints. Handheld X-ray fluorescence (XRF) and multispectral imaging surveys reveal that the degradation is confined to cadmium yellow (CdS) paints. The discoloration of cadmium yellow paints in Impressionist, Post-Impressionist and early modernist work from the 1880s through the 1920s has been ascribed to the photo-oxidative degradation of CdS. Preliminary investigations of the degraded yellow paints in this work involved Cd LIII-edge X-ray Absorption Near Edge Spectroscopy (XANES) at the Stanford Synchrotron Radiation Light Source (SSRL Menlo Park, California) and Scanning Electron Microscopy-energy dispersive X-ray analysis (SEM-EDS) at the Winterthur Museum Scientific Research and Analysis Laboratory. To determine if the visual changes in the paints did in fact indicate photo-oxidative degradation and if different chemistries could be observed for the lightened versus darkened regions, synchrotron radiation-micro Fourier Transform InfraRed (SR-μFTIR) spectroscopy, X-ray Fluorescence (SR-μXRF) mapping and micro X-ray Absorption Near Edge Spectroscopy (μXANES) mapping at the Cd LIII-edge of the altered paint cross-sections were carried out at the European synchrotron radiation facility (ESRF, Grenoble, France) beamline ID-21. The goal is to elucidate the discoloration mechanisms observed in the paint using elemental and speciation mapping. The μXANES mapping and SR-FTIR imaging showed a substantial enrichment of CdCO3 in the off-white surface crust of the faded/discolored CdS paint. This suggests that the CdCO3 is present as an insoluble photodegradation product rather than solely a paint filler or starting reagent. Additionally, oxalates and sulfates were found to be concentrated at the alteration surface.

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This work is supported by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the Barnes Foundation, the Lenfest Foundation, and the National Science Foundation DMR 0415838. The DOE Office of Science and European Synchrotron Radiation Facility are acknowledged for Apurva Mehta’s and Marine Cotte’s and beamline ID21’s time, respectively. The authors are grateful to Catherine Matsen for her assistance with cross-section preparation, and to Fang Fang for her assistance in the SSRL data collection.

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Correspondence to Jennifer L. Mass.

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The final known oil sketch for Matisse’s Le bonheur de vivre, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 1905-1906, 91.160 (JPG 41 kB)

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Mass, J.L., Opila, R., Buckley, B. et al. The photodegradation of cadmium yellow paints in Henri Matisse’s Le Bonheur de vivre (1905–1906). Appl. Phys. A 111, 59–68 (2013).

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  • Yellow Paint
  • Paint Layer
  • CdSO4
  • CdCO3
  • Methyl Ethyl Ketone Peroxide