There's a famous Vincent van Gogh painting titled "Bedroom in Arles." It's a scene of a, you guessed it, bedroom that features a red blanket on the bed. However, that blanket might not be red for long.
For years, art experts have noticed that some of van Gogh's paintings are turning white. Now we finally know the reason why.
Scientists at the University of Antwerp recently discovered that it all has to do with plumbonacrite. Oh of course, plumbonacrite! Wait, what?
Also known as red lead, plumbonacrite is one of the earliest-known synthetically made paints, according to Public Radio International. Van Gogh used a lot of it in his paintings, which you will notice often have splashes of a rusty-red hue in them, from the aforementioned "Bedroom in Arles" to "Wheat Stack Under a Cloudy Sky" to "Roses."
Scientists already knew the stuff whitened under light, but the researchers at the University of Antwerp wanted to know why. They did so by taking a little white piece from van Gogh's "Wheat Stack Under a Cloudy Sky" and shooting a beam of X-rays at it from different positions, according to Chemistry World. Wow, this is just like something out of a sci-fi movie, isn't it?
The researchers were able to see the chemical makeup of the paint, and plumbonacrite was one of the compounds present, which is the first time plumbonacrite has been discovered in a pre-20th century painting. The researchers think that when red lead is exposed to light, it gets converted into plumbonacrite, which reacts with carbon dioxide, turning the outer layer of the paint into a whitish-gray color. The paint becomes like "a Gobstopper with the red core inside and a light blue layer and then gray layer on the outside of the particle mass," according to Hyperallergic.
So why does any of this matter, you ask? Well, this could help art museums figure out the best lighting conditions in which to display their collections so they can be preserved for all of time, or at least as long as possible. And isn't that a pretty good reason to care? Yes, yes it is.