An oil painting is essentially pigment suspended in clear oil arranged on a flat surface. The just-painted glisten of an oil painting can last for centuries. And viewing the piquant colours of an old-but-well-preserved oil painting can leave you with an eerie sense of having traveled through time.
This is a feeling one gets when looking at The Arnolfini Portrait, which was painted in 1434 by Jan van Eyck, an early pioneer of oil painting. It now hangs in the National Gallery in London and, almost 600 years since Van Eyck decided it was done and put his brushes down, its colours are still bright. Two-dimensional art of such a venerable age usually dulls. But not this painting—its lustrous colours don’t seem to be of the 1400s, and it has required little restoration. You're looking at what Van Eyck looked at.
This praise for longevity cannot be given to some art mediums, though. Old ink drawings, for example, can leave you wondering what the drawing once looked like before the ink had faded. Some of these drawings could well become historical artifacts when they become blank pieces of paper. Perhaps one day a room in a museum somewhere will be dedicated to such faded works of art (exhibited alongside images of what they once looked like), rescuing them from the archives.
These two polarities of preservation degree (from almost unchanged to a ghost) are evident in the work of Van Gogh. To illustrate the former, the glistening oil paint of Wheatfield with Crows (below) seems to be of 1990 rather than 1890. And the skewing of time is enhanced by the impasto paint strokes that allow you to imagine the motion of his arm and hand when he painted it. I can recall seeing this painting for the first time as a teenager and feeling a sense of awe at these tangible marks of Van Gogh's presence.
As an example of Van Gogh’s work that has withered, his series of sunflower paintings have faded due to having been created with non-lightfast paint (lightfast paint is paint that doesn't fade as easily when exposed to light). I recently saw the Van Gogh Museum’s version of the Sunflowers in Amsterdam and found it difficult to engage with. It seems to be appreciably different from to how it looked when it was on his easel. And it carries the burden of being a famous work, so you expect it to deliver. The composition, draftsmanship, and heady background story are enjoyable, but the electricity has gone. Were Van Gogh alive now, I bet that he’d paint them again to show us what they used to look like.
Next time I'm in Amsterdam, I'll suggest to the museum that creating some images showing their best guess at what the paintings once looked like will likely be of interest to the audience.