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X-ray imaging reveals why this 17th century painted yellow rose lost its luster

Enlarge / The pigments used to create the yellow rose in Abraham Mignon’s Still Life with Flowers and a Watch have degraded, giving the rose a flatter appearance—the opposite of the 3D illusory effect intended by the artist.

The 17th century still-life painter Abraham Mignon was known for his depictions of flowers, fruit, forests, and grottoes, among other objects. But over time, certain pigments have degraded to such an extent as to alter the artist’s intent. Most notably, a yellow rose prominently featured in Mignon’s Still Life with Flowers and a Watch has become flattened and monochrome, particularly compared to the other blooms featured in the painting.

A team of Dutch and Belgian scientists used chemical and optical imaging techniques to examine the elemental distribution of the various pigments, according to a recent paper published in the journal Science Advances. In this way, they could infer Mignon’s original painting technique—specifically how the artist built up layers to create what would have been a 3D appearance for the original rose.

According to the authors, over time, artist pigments and binders in oil paintings inevitably deteriorate when exposed to external factors such as light, relative humidity, temperature, and/or exposure to solvents, as well as incompatible pigment mixtures. The result was discoloration and color changes that can affect the paint’s structural integrity, causing such defects as loss of transparency, brittleness, or micro-cracks.

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