Many oil-based paints used by history’s finest artists have aged badly over the years – cracking and even peeling off their canvases – and once vibrant colours have dulled.

To help preserve these works of art, Shell has been involved since the 1990s in scientific research on more than 160 paintings by artists including Van Gogh, Rembrandt, Pellegrini, and Jan Steen.

In a series of unusual collaborations, our scientists and leading art galleries are pioneering high-tech tools and techniques from the energy industry to create a better understanding of how paints age and how best to conserve them.

Restoring the Golden Room

Scientists at Shell Technology Centre Amsterdam, for example, partnered with The Hague’s Mauritshuis museum – home to Johannes Vermeer’s “Girl with a Pearl Earring” – to restore 18thcentury wall and ceiling paintings in the Golden Room by Italian artist Giovanni Antonio Pellegrini.

A thin, grey layer had accumulated on the paintings over many years. When the scientists confirmed its chemical composition, museum conservationists realised they would have to use a water-based gel to remove it. Because water can damage oil paint, the restorers worked closely with Shell’s analytical team to prevent any harm.

"We were deeply involved in testing to confirm that the gel was only removing the grey layer and not any of the underlying paints"

Ralph Haswell, principal Shell scientist.

In a long-term collaboration with the museum to improve art preservation methods, Shell helped fund a two-year restoration and expansion project on the building. It reopened to visitors in mid-2014.

Stopping the fade  

Our scientists also joined forces with London’s National Gallery in 2014 to study why a paint pigment favoured by Rembrandt van Rijn and other 17th century artists is especially prone to fading.

The research included analysing the molecular structure of tiny paint samples to understand how the colours could best be preserved.

Paint can age so fast that the impressionist Vincent van Gogh watched the colours in his works fade even during his brief lifetime.

"All the colours that Impressionism has made fashionable are unstable, all the more reason to boldly use them too raw, time will only soften them too much"

Vincent Van Gogh, April 1888.

The fading continues to this day. But Shell is working with the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam and the Cultural Heritage Agency of the Netherlands to try to stop it.

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