VINCENT VAN GOGH AND THE TOXIC COLOURS OF SATURN

EXPOSURE TO LEAD IN VAN GOGH’S PICTORIAL TECHNIQUE

Because of his impasto technique, based on thick layers of paint, Van Gogh resorted to
colors with a high content of lead 6, 7 , such as white lead (lead carbonate) or chrome
yellow (lead chromate), in the mixtures he prepared. These pigments are highly toxic in
oil painting, and their use entails the risk of saturnism 8 ,9 .
During his Dutch period, white lead (“flake white” or “blanc d’argent”) formed part of
Van Gogh’s palette (222)10 , featuring in his requests for supplies in double quantity and
in thick tubes (475)11 . The use of this pigment afforded him vigorous brushstrokes of a
creamy texture8, and darkened the mixtures8, which accounts for the tenebrism that
characterizes that phase of his career. Although at Arles he obtained a more luminous
palette by using zinc white in the mixtures (504)12, he continued to use white lead to
prime the canvas, or as impasting (596)13, in order to give more firmness to the
foreground 8, 14 .  Click here to read  more.

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