Vincent Van Gogh

The Bedroom Vincent van Gogh, Arles, October 1888 Left as it looks now, right a digital reproduction of the original colors.
Images from the Van Gough Museum

Alizarin and Fugitives

Vincent van Gogh’s “The Bedroom” gives a first hand look at the effect of fugitive colors. What does fugitive mean? The word can mean fleeting or temporary but when it comes to paint, fugitive colors are likely to fade over time because of the elements and UV rays. Many paints are considered fugitive but today we want to look specifically into how the color Alizarin went from disappearing to the stable and dependable color we artists use today.


The Paintings are Disappearing

Around the end of the 18th-century synthetic Alizarin Crimson was the cheaper replacement for the other widely used expensive red color called Madder. On top of the affordable price, this new Alizarin Crimson had a higher tinting strength. Or in other words, it took less paint to do the same job. The new synthetic color also meant improved lightfastness compared to Madder.  A more stable and permanent color was appealing to artists because many pigments including Madder were fading- earning them the name “Fugitive”.

Because the original Madder color was not lightfast, you can often find bleached out areas of what was once a beautiful red on fifteenth and sixteenth-century paintings. Take a look at the paintings below, in both the originally reddish robes of the Virgin have become almost completely white.


Lorenzo Monaco Coronation of the Virgin
Virgin and Child Before Firescreen

Left “The Coronation of the Virgin” by Lorenzo Monaco 1414 (The robe of the Virgin Mary was originally a pinkish-mauve while it now appears white), Right Image “Virgin and Child Before Firescreen” would have once been a warmer mauve color.
Images from National Gallery and article from David Sunders and Jo Kirby National Gallery Technical Bulletin


Scientists Reveal the Effects of Fugitives


In Winslow Homer’s “To Be a Farmer’s Boy” scientists are able to see the effects of fugitive colors after studying the colors on a microscopic scale. You can see in the image on the right two halves of a painting: on the left the artificially reproduced original state of the painting and the current, faded state on the right. 


Van Gogh’s work suffered the same fate. His work “The Bedroom”, featured below, has turned from the original purple to a remarkably faded blue color. Although Alizarin or Madder may not be to blame, it is a great example of the cost of fugitive paints. He painted this painting in Arles, France. We like to visit nearby in St. Remy where Van Gogh spent just under a year of his life but painted 142 of his most loved paintings. It is there that you can take a look at a replica of the bedroom for yourself!



Winslow Homer
Van Gogh Fugitive Colors Fading

Image from the Van Gogh Museum

Where on Earth?


The color Madder comes from the madder plant root. It is a plant native to Asia and southern Europe where it was originally used to dye fabrics. There is evidence of Madder from over 3000 years ago. Traces were found in the clothes and textiles of Ancient Egypt, Persia, and the ruins of Pompeii.

In the image on the right, “Mummy Portrait of a Woman with Earrings”, Madder is used in the burial painting for an Egyptian mummy. This painting is dated from 130 to 140 CE. Now that is a color that has been around for ages! 


Madder was the commonly used purplish-red color used heavily during the Renaissance. Because the original madder was not lightfast, you can often find bleached-out areas of what was once a beautiful red on fifteenth and sixteenth-century paintings. A few examples are seen above. 




Mummy Portrait of Woman with Earrings
Madder Plant

Top Right: Mummy Portrait of a Woman with Earrings, Romano-Egyptian, ca. AD 130–140. Encaustic on linden wood. Cambridge, Harvard Art Museums / Arthur M. Sackler Museum, Gift of Dr. Denman W. Ross, 1923.60.

Below: Dried Madder Plant Roots

Vermeer Christ House Martha Mary

Johannes Vermeer, “Christ in the House of Martha and Mary” (c. 1654), oil on canvas.
The National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh, Scotland. 

The Invention of a New Paint 


In the image on the right by Johannes Vermeer, “Christ in the House of Martha and Mary”, you can see the color Madder Lake color on full display.


Unfortunately, the madder dye and pigment were expensive and time-consuming to produce. In the nineteenth century, chemists wanted to improve the Madder Lake so that it could be improved in cost, lightfastness, and tinting strength. 


In 1826, two French chemists, Jean-Jacques Colin and Pierre-Jean Robiquet, were able to break down the madder color into two separate dyes: Alizarin and Purpurin


Following that breakthrough, the German chemists Carl Gräbe and Carl synthesized the pigment from coal tar, making alizarin crimson the first natural dye to be synthesized.



How to Protect your Paintings


Back at the end of the 18th-century, the new synthetic paint Alizarin Crimson was exalted as a great, lightfast paint but modern research in late 20th-century research has called Alizarins’ lightfastness into question. It has been known to fade in UV light and most are unsure if it is a good choice for professionals when working on their art. 


Although Alizarin was a color created to solve the problem of lightfastness it is still under question of whether or not it is fugitive. A good rule of thumb when painting with Alizarin Crimson is to keep the finished paintings out of direct sunlight and try using a UV varnish to protect the painting from the effects of UV light. But many companies are now working on more permanent solutions, keep an eye out for “Permanent Alizarin Crimson” or “Alizarin Claret”. 

The oil painting company Michael Harding, offers information on the lightfastness of their paints. Just click on the color on their website, to find out more about each paint’s characteristics.


Alizarin Claret
Image from the Michael Harding Website


But how does a color become a lake color? Have you ever heard the term “Laking”?

Before we had paints we had vegetable dyes. To turn the dye into a pigment they would use a process known as laking. A lake pigment is a dye that has gone through a chemical process that makes it insoluble in water. Dye is extracted from plants, then combined with a metallic salt in a chemical process to make a lake pigment. By the 7th century BCE, the madder root and pigment was developed into one of the first of these “Lake Pigments”.  So when you hear “Madder Lake” it just means madder particles in an insoluble substance! 
Lauren Carlo

Blogger: Lauren Carlo


Lauren Carlo is an artist and also the Marketing Director of Workshops In France.  She lives in Baltimore, MD, and enjoys traveling, dancing, and rock climbing.  You can learn more about her painting on her website or follow her on Instagram: @lauren.carloart.

If you are curious about the other pigments on your palette and their colorful histories you should read our blogs on Yellow Ochre Lifted From Nature’s Palette, and  Ultramarine Blue and It’s Adoring Artists. How about Venetian Red—Loved by Painters, Hated by American Colonists, or the intrigue behind Indian Yellow: The Ethics of Color?

Check out more blogs about art workshops, tips and hacks for artists traveling in France and Scotland.

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