Saving The Scream with science

"The Scream" by expressionist painter Edvard Munch.

Paint in this version of The Scream, held by the Munch Museum in Oslo, has degraded with time. Credit: Stian Lysberg Solum/AFP/Getty

Materials science

Storing Edvard Munch’s masterpiece at low humidity will help to preserve its colours, analysis shows.

Bright yellow hues that once screamed from Edvard Munch’s iconic painting The Scream have become muted over time. The culprit: chemical reactions spurred by humidity.

Munch portrayed the now-faded yellows of the Sun setting over a lake with a pigment containing cadmium sulfide. Letizia Monico and Costanza Miliani at the Italian National Research Council in Perugia and their colleagues analysed the version of The Scream at the Munch Museum in Oslo by imaging the painting with light of various wavelengths. The team also scraped six minuscule paint flakes off the work and probed them with intense radiation. The analysis revealed that the painting’s yellow cadmium sulfide had been partially transformed into other cadmium compounds that are whitish in colour.

Building roof in front of synchrotron's ring-shaped roof, vegetation in centre of ring and mountains in background.

Minute paint samples collected from The Scream were tested at the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility in Grenoble, France.Credit: ESRF/Stef Candé

The researchers performed similar analyses on a sample of cadmium-yellow paint from one of Munch’s own paint tubes and another prepared using an early-twentieth-century pigment. Because of a certain impurity in both paints, the cadmium sulfide turned into white cadmium sulfate when exposed to high levels of humidity.

Although the painting is stable at standard levels of light, the researchers recommend storing it at a relative humidity of less than 45%.

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