We're mixing art and science brilliantly.

Researchers at UT Dallas' Edith O'Donnell Institute of Art History are partnering with the Dallas Museum of Art to develop a better understanding of ultramarine disease, a condition that causes brilliant blue colors on paintings by Old Masters like Botticelli, Vermeer and Poussin to fade over time. Chemists, art historians and conservators are working together to pioneer restorative techniques to make the beauty of the past more indelible for the future. Ingenious.

Dallas Museum of Art: "Ultramarine Disease" Project

Understanding "Ultramarine Disease" with Dr. Ken Balkus, Professor of Chemistry, Department of Chemistry, School of Natural Sciences & Mathematics


Bacchic Concert by Pietro Paolini
Dallas Museum of Art, The Karl and Esther Hoblitzelle Collection, gift of the Hoblitzelle Foundation.

This project focuses upon a well-known but little understood problem found in areas of Old Master paintings containing ultramarine blue. Even in well-preserved pictures, areas of natural ultramarine (which is ground lapis lazuli) can turn gray and flat, resulting in formless areas of drapery, landscape and sky, for example. Often referred to as 'ultramarine disease,' the phenomenon has never been adequately explained, and its cause – as well as any potential for treatment – remains largely a mystery.

The molecular structure of ultramarine blue falls within a specific category of materials known as 'zeolites,' which refers to a cage-like outer structure containing specific atoms (in the case of ultramarine, sulfur atoms) locked within the exterior framework. Professor Ken Balkus, Professor of Chemistry, School of Natural Sciences and Mathematics, is one of the world's leading experts on zeolites; he and his team of collaborators have taken an interest in exploring ultramarine disease with the goals of identifying its causes and determining whether or not the phenomenon can be reversed.

Mark Leonard, Chief Conservator at the Dallas Museum of Art, has prepared a number of natural and synthetic ultramarine blue paint samples, which currently are undergoing analysis. After this first stage is complete, re-creation of damaged surfaces will be carried out through a variety of methods; these changes will then be studied and characterized. Once a mechanism mimicking what is seen in actual paintings is identified, small samples of areas of paintings from the DMA's collection that are afflicted with ultramarine disease will be studied in micro-detail. With a full understanding of the phenomenon's underlying mechanisms, opportunities for reversing its damaging visual effects can be developed.