This piece of research has made a winding trek through the online science world. First it was featured in an April 20, 2017 American Chemical Society news release on EurekAlert,
A good art dealer can really clean up in today’s market, but not when some weird chemistry wreaks havoc on masterpieces. Art conservators started to notice microscopic pockmarks forming on the surfaces of treasured oil paintings that cause the images to look hazy. It turns out the marks are eruptions of paint caused, weirdly, by soap that forms via chemical reactions. Since you have no time to watch paint dry, we explain how paintings from Rembrandts to O’Keefes are threatened by their own compositions — and we don’t mean the imagery.
Here’s the video,
Interestingly, this seems to be based on a May 23, 2016 article by Sarah Everts for Chemical and Engineering News (an American Society publication) Note: Links have been removed,
When conservator Petria Noble first peered at Rembrandt’s “Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp” under a microscope back in 1996, she was surprised to find pockmarks across the nearly 400-year-old painting’s surface.
Each tiny crater was just a few hundred micrometers in diameter, no wider than the period at the end of this sentence. The painting’s surface was entirely riddled with these curious structures, giving it “a dull, rather hazy, gritty surface,” Noble says.
This concerned Noble, who was tasked with cleaning the masterpiece with her then-colleague Jørgen Wadum at the Mauritshuis museum, the painting’s home in The Hague.
When Noble called physicist Jaap Boon, then at the Foundation for Fundamental Research on Matter in Amsterdam, to help figure out what was going on, the researchers unsuspectingly embarked on an investigation that would transform the art world’s understanding of aging paint.
More recently this ‘metal soaps in paintings’ story has made its way into a May 16, 2017 news item on phys.org,
An oil painting is not a permanent and unchangeable object, but undergoes a very slow change in the outer and inner structure. Metal soap formation is of great importance. Joen Hermans has managed to recreate the molecular structure of old oil paints: a big step towards better preservation of works of art. He graduated cum laude on Tuesday 9 May  at the University of Amsterdam with NWO funding from the Science4Arts program.
A May 15, 2017 Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research (NWO) press release, which originated the phys.org news item, provides more information about Hermans’ work (albeit some of this is repetitive),
Johannes Vermeer, View of Delft, c. 1660 – 1661 (Mauritshuis, The Hague)
Paint can fade, varnish can discolour and paintings can collect dust and dirt. Joen Hermans has examined the chemical processes behind ageing processes in paints. ‘While restorers do their best to repair any damages that have occurred, the fact remains that at present we do not know enough about the molecular structure of ageing oil paint and the chemical processes they undergo’, says Hermans. ‘This makes it difficult to predict with confidence how paints will react to restoration treatments or to changes in a painting’s environment.’
‘Sand grains’ In the red tiles of ‘View of Delft’ by Johannes Vermeer shows ‘lead soap spheres’ (Annelies van Loon, UvA/Mauritshuis)
Visible to the naked eye
Hermans explains that in its simplest form, oil paint is a mixture of pigment and drying oil, which forms the binding element. Colour pigments are often metal salts. ‘When the pigment and the drying oil are combined, an incredibly complicated chemical process begins’, says Hermans, ‘which continues for centuries’. The fatty acids in the oil form a polymer network when exposed to oxygen in the air. Meanwhile, metal ions react with the oil on the surface of the grains of pigment.
‘A common problem when conserving oil paintings is the formation of what are known as metal soaps’, Hermans continues. These are compounds of metal ions and fatty acids. The formation of metal soaps is linked to various ways in which paint deteriorates, as when it becomes increasingly brittle, transparent or forms a crust on the paint surface. Hermans: ‘You can see clumps of metal soap with the naked eye on some paintings, like Rembrandt’s Anatomy Lesson of Dr Nicolaes Tulp or Vermeer’s View of Delft’. Around 70 per cent of all oil paintings show signs of metal soap formation.’
Conserving valuable paintings
Hermans has studied in detail how metal soaps form. He began by defining the structure of metal soaps. One of the things he discovered was that the process that causes metal ions to move in the painting is crucial to the speed at which the painting ages. Hermans also managed to recreate the molecular structure of old oil paints, making it possible to simulate and study the behaviour of old paints without actually having to remove samples from Rembrandt’s Night Watch. Hermans hopes this knowledge will contribute towards a solid foundation for the conservation of valuable works of art.
I imagine this will make anyone who owns an oil painting or appreciates paintings in general pause for thought and the inclination to utter a short prayer for conservators to find a solution.