The brilliant reds in Vincent van Gogh’s paintings are slowly turning white. To understand how these Pb3O4-based red pigments degrade, chemists at the University of Antwerp, in Belgium, used X-ray powder diffraction tomography to study a sample taken from van Gogh’s 1889 painting “Wheat Stack under a Cloudy Sky.” The white circle on the painting indicates the spot that they sampled. In the space between the sample’s reddish-orange Pb3O4 core and the light blue PbCO3 layer that surrounds it, the chemists found plumbonacrite, 3PbCO3•Pb(OH)2•PbO. The chemists propose a mechanism of how red lead degrades via plumbonacrite, involving carbon dioxide and light.

Adapted from C&EN, March 16, 2015, p. 26. - Van Gogh’s Red Is Turning White


The man with orange hair

tucked away in private misery

developing his mysteries with paint and flower petals

a sunflower man

too wilted on the inside to stand

a brush between rough fingertips

could never explain 

the complexity of pain

without hope of healing or a chance to breathe

somewhere deep

beneath the streets of Provence

a wandering man with orange hair

trying to find his soul among the swirling stars

abandoned by his body

he could see the atmosphere as it really was



his steps leave smears of yellow on the cobblestones

his voice is hollow howling like the wind by the sea

crying out for someone to tell him if he is even real

layers of color on canvas have no meaning

until they tell a story 

like blood spatter on the wheat that moves in the wind

a man with orange hair

dipped in red 

life in blue

and a yellow soul