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‘Seurat: Master of pointillism’ opens this week at the Kröller-Müller Museum in Otterlo, Netherlands. We spoke to the curator, Toos van Kooten, to find out more about the exhibition and how it came about.

Can you tell us a bit about the exhibition?

Georges Seurat is known for his meticulously stippled paintings and his eerily illuminated black-and-white drawings. His oeuvre comprises some 50 paintings and about 200 drawings, which became highly sought-after following his untimely death. The Kröller-Müller Museum is the only museum in the world that has five paintings to its name, including the famous painting Le Chahut. This valuable collection, assembled by Mr and Mrs Kröller-Müller in the early 20th century, is the basis for an exhibition devoted entirely to this great painter, with the underlying question: what makes his work so special and so well loved?

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When Vincent van Gogh painted Flowers in a Blue Vase in 1887 in Paris, he chose a bright, cheery yellow for the flowers. As years passed, the vivid hue faded to a dull orange-gray and scientists have just found out that a coat of protective varnish is to blame.

After van Gogh’s death in 1890, the varnish was applied to preserve the work, a common practice at the time. However, when the paint mixed with the varnish, a chemical reaction occurred causing the colors to change.

Something seemed awry back in 2009 when Margje Leeuwestein, painting conservator at the Kröller-Müller Museum in the Netherlands, attempted a conversation treatment on the piece. An unusual gray crust containing cadmium yellow paint formed on the surface, signaling that they were dealing with more than just aging varnish which is known to darken over time.

 As the painting had become increasingly brittle, experts at the Kröller-Müller Museum carefully took two microscopic paint samples from the original work and used X-ray beams to determine the chemical composition and structure where the paint and varnish met. A lead-sulfate compound, the result of photo-oxidation that separates cadmium and sulfate ions from that particular paint, was revealed. The researchers deduced that the negatively charged sulfate ions hooked up with the lead ions in the varnish to form anglesite, an opaque lead-sulfate compound that caused the color to transform.

 By keeping the painting in lower light conditions and using more advanced varnish, the deterioration should be halted. The surprising findings will be chronicled in the upcoming issue of the scholarly journal, Analytical Chemistry.

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