- Analytical imaging studies of the migration of degraded orpiment, realgar, and emerald green pigments in historic paintings and related conservation issues
- HERITAGE SCIENCE
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- Faculty of Science (FNWI)
- Van 't Hoff Institute for Molecular Sciences (HIMS)
Yellow orpiment (As2S3) and red–orange realgar (As4S4) photo-degrade and the nineteenth-century pigment emerald green (Cu(C2H3O2)2·3Cu(AsO2)2) degrades into arsenic oxides. Because of their solubility in water, arsenic oxides readily migrate and are found throughout the multi-layered paint system. The widespread arsenic migration has consequences for conservation, and this paper provides better insight into the extent of the problem. Five paint samples containing orpiment, realgar or emerald green pigments deriving from paintings by De Heem (17th C), Van Gogh (19th C), Rousseau (19th C), an unknown 17th C northern European artist and an Austrian painted cupboard (19th C) were investigated using SEM/EDX, imaging ATR-FTIR and arsenic (As) K–edge μ-XANES to obtain the spatial distribution and chemical speciation of arsenic in the paint system. In all of the samples investigated arsenic had migrated throughout the multi-layered paint structure of the art object, from support to varnish. Furthermore, As5+-species were found throughout the entire paint sample. We hypothesize that arsenic trioxide is first formed, dissolves in water, further oxidizes to arsenic pentaoxide, and then reacts with lead, calcium and other ions and is deposited in the paint system as insoluble arsenates. Since the degradation of arsenic pigments such as orpiment, realgar and emerald green occurs through a highly mobile intermediate stage, it not only affects the regions rich in arsenic pigments, but also the entire object, including substrate and top varnish layers. Because of this widespread potential for damage, preventing degradation of arsenic pigments should be prioritized and conservators should minimize exposure of objects containing arsenic pigments to strong light, large fluctuations in relative humidity and water-based cleaning agents.
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