Descente des vaches (1836) by Théodore Rousseau in the Mesdag Collection in The Hague is barely readable and its paint layers are in poor condition. The surface of the painting is strongly deformed and cracked, the whole painting has darkened and especially the greens have lost all or most of their colour resulting in brown passages. Large passages of the painting that were painted with multiple thick and medium-rich layers have darkened dramatically. This paper proposes that the degradation of Emerald green (Cu(C2H3O2)2·3Cu(AsO2)2, copperacetoarsenite) ‐ the main green pigment used in this painting ‐ is a significant factor in the cause of the darkening. Electron backscatter images reveal that the Emerald green particles are shown different degrees of degradation: from partially to completely disintegrated. Elemental maps show that arsenic is distributed throughout the paint cross section, with relatively higher concentrations around iron- and aluminium-containing particles, and in the varnish layer. Imaging-Fourier-transform infrared microscopy detects copper soaps in the degraded Emerald green-containing layers. Analytical data from four paint cross sections strongly suggest that Emerald green reacts with free fatty acids derived from the binding medium forming copper soaps and mobile arsenic-based species. Chemical laboratory experiments fully support this hypothesis. Emerald green and palmitic acid in chloroform form copper palmitate and arsenic trioxide (arsenolite, cubic) under room temperature and normal light conditions. The degradation of Emerald green particles in Descente des vaches has resulted in a loss of light-reflecting surfaces and in newly formed compounds in the paint, both contribute to the colour change from green to brown.

Maney & Son
Stud. Conserv.

Keune, K., Boon, J. J., Boitelle, R., & Shimazu, Y. (2013). Degradation of Emerald green in oil paint and its contribution to the rapid change in colour of the Descente des vaches (1834-1835) painted by Theodore Rousseau. Stud. Conserv., 58(3), 199–210. doi:10.1179/2047058412Y.0000000063