“The yellow glistens.
It glistens with various yellows,
Citrons, oranges and greens
Flowering over the skin.”
Wallace Stevens

cadmium yellow
Cadmium yellow, above, is involved in a chemical contretemps affecting priceless artworks.

In some recent news that caused a bit of concern in art circles, researchers have confirmed that those golden hues so brilliantly used in paintings by Henri Matisse (as well as Vincent van Gogh) have been slowly degrading over the years into dullish, beige-like tones, giving the works a considerably altered appearance since their creation a century ago.

It’s all due to a complicated chemical process involving the pigment known as cadmium yellow (not to be confused with chrome yellow, which falls differently on the color spectrum).  Used by artists from the 1880s until the 1920s, cadmium yellow was a popular compound among the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists at the time (though, alas, not Edgar Degas, who once harrumphed, “What a horrible thing yellow is.”) The ramifications of this not-so-mellow yellow debate are not insignificant: “Literally billions of dollars’ worth of art is affected by this chemistry,” said one scientist at the Winterthur Museum in Delaware.

Henri Matisse was, of course, the “master of color” — and naturally, the master of yellow. The intensity of his passion for all things chromatic is captured in several conversations cited in the book, Matisse on Art, an illustrious detailing of the artist’s insights on the subject. In one interview, he talks in gushing terms of a cactus flower in his French garden: “…look how it shines like a burning coal against the grayish green background, like a spider web hanging above thick dark silk!” In another, he speaks of the blue tomatoes that appear in a famed canvas. Why blue? “Because I see them that way, and I cannot help it if no one else does,” he answered. (You go, Monsieur Matisse!)

As for yellow, it’s one of the colors (blue and green being the others), which appears most often in his work. A hue he specifically derived from the blossom of the cactus tree, he considered yellow an abiding and life-affirming symbol.

matisse young girl with a sofa
Matisse’s “Young Girl with a Yellow Sofa,” from 1940.

I wondered about Matisse’s thinking in the use of the color in Young Girl with a Yellow Sofa, above (the painting was unaffected by the cadmium controversy, as it was produced in his late career). More than just a splash or a highlight — it’s red that he chose to do that with here, even on the chair itself — the yellow envelops the reclining figure in an almost organic sense. And is it too farfetched to think the patterns on the young lady’s blouse as well as those that appear directly behind her, put together, are reminiscent of cacti? Maybe a stretch, but the artistic mind works in curious fashion, as they say.

“Color acts in the way that music does,” the Cubist Georges Braque once mused. “You put a blob of yellow here, and another at the further edge of the canvas: straight away a rapport is established between them…”

The yellow glistens, in the poet’s words — and it sings, as well.

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