The weird chemistry threatening priceless paintings — Speaking of Chemistry

Monday, December 18, 2017


Did you know that thousands of precious paintings around the world are generating soap beneath their surfaces?

Art conservators struggle with microscopic eruptions in masterpieces
↓↓More info and references below↓↓

A huge thanks to Rijks Museum conservator Petria Noble and independent conservation scientist Jaap Boon.

If this episode leaves you wanting more chemistry goodness, check out the featured resources below.

Van Gogh’s Fading Colors Inspire Scientific Inquiry

Cleaning Acrylics

Speaking of Chemistry is a production of Chemical & Engineering News (C&EN), the weekly news magazine of the American Chemical Society.

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  1. Kristin deGhetaldi says:

    Oh dear lots of hyperbolic statements here and wrong science 🙁 metal soaps are not OFTEN bad news….metal soaps are necessary to give strength to the paint film. Without them we would not have any old master paintings. And not all soaps cause de-lamination…only zinc soaps do. There are thousands and thousands of paintings that do not suffer from soap degradation and will likely never fall victim to such processes.
    And it is absolutely FALSE that water is the safest way to clean paintings. It is simply one way…in fact many paintings cannot be cleaned with water. Often organic solvents are used to remove degraded varnish and overpaint, things that are far more problematic than lead soaps (again zinc soaps are another matter). It is impossible to simulate the dozens of treatments and environments that an Old Master painting has been subjected too….again some have faired quite well while others have not.
    Even if some paints out in a lab indicate that water drives a reaction (which of COURSE water can drive the reaction! water drives MANY reactions!) this is by no means enough information to suddenly stop using it to remove surface grime, particularly if the grime is separated from the paint layers with multiple varnish layers. Much more research needs to be done to look into the effect of paint driers (which contain lead and other ions) and possibly the effect of lining procedures that are no longer practiced so see if these antiquated restoration procedures may have driven lead soap formation.

  2. nicholas vanderborgh says:

    Difficult problem. But interesting. Perhaps there are other compounds that would bind to the acid more firmly, and compete with lead successfully. Really a problem with the stability of a mixture, and things do tend to move around. I also wonder about what activates the migration. For example, photons? Temperature? Are certain frequencies of light detrimental? Do people outgas chemicals that are detrimental? (Deodorants, etc.) There are, one would guess, strategies that are worth thinking about. I suspect that the paintings themselves will last longer than any digital data describing the work of art.

  3. Ellen Smart says:

    the speaker popping up and down is horrible and very distracting. Every painting should be evaluated on its own. No hard and fast rules about what to do….

  4. Brandon Hamer says:

    This is the dilemma of conservation. Damned if you do or damned if you don't – you won't know what may have been better until after.
    Better get experimenting on some worthless pieces / mock-ups to try and figure it out.

  5. david21686 says:

    Next time, can you please walk through these scientific concepts more slowly, while giving the necessary background information for us noobs?

  6. Dragon Skunk says:

    Is the person narrating this part of some new age thing?
    She looks like a character straight out of The Walking Dead.

  7. Joseph Shoults says:

    The picture of a cat that has been poisoned at 2:15 is not "interesting".

  8. CrankyPants says:

    That was very interesting.

  9. AhpgZfoc4s says:

    Your new natural hand posing isn't fooling anyone!

  10. Doug Dimmadome, owner of the Dimmsdale Dimmadome says:

    lmao why would anyone care about a painting

  11. Moonbreaker97 says:

    depends, if there is a way to get rid of the soaps without harming the painting, go for it, if not dont do it, rather let a good painter copy it in case it gets out of hand

  12. Vincent Carmiggelt says:

    Piet (Mondriaan) is pronounced as 'Pete', not 'Piët'. 😉

  13. Vaultboy2287 says:

    Nothing lasts forever

  14. Rūta says:

    Hans bring ze…

  15. Chemistreeu SCIENCE!!!!!!!!!!! says:

    #4th comment

  16. DrinkThis says:

    i say leave as is. altering it now could make it worse than before. enjoy what the art was and its ages

  17. Docobonbon The one says:

    I only type lies

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