Leonardo da Vinci, <em>Portrait of a Man in Red Chalk</em> (circa 1512).

How do you keep a 400-year-old Leonardo Da Vinci self-portrait from disappearing? Scientists are struggling to figure that out, especially since the chalk drawing is thought to be the master’s only extant portrayal of himself.

Scientists believe that the red chalk lines are gradually vanishing, fading into the paper, which has yellowed with age thanks to light, heat, moisture, metallic and acidic impurities, and pollutant gases.

“This phenomenon is known as ‘yellowing,’ which causes severe damage and negatively affects the aesthetic enjoyment of ancient artworks on paper,” said Joanna Lojewska, of Jagiellonian University in Krakow, Poland.

Scientists have done substantial testing on the drawing, evaluating its state of degradation. The presence of chromophores, byproducts of the aging process that lend old papers their distinctive yellowed tint, were found in the drawing. A study published on their work states that “the sadly poor state of preservation that characterizes Leonardo’s self-portrait today is the result of the inappropriate conditions in which it was historically stored.”

Hopefully, proper conservation methods have stabilized the drawing’s fragile conditions. The scientists’ findings may be of use in their efforts to discover a method—such as chemical treatments or a water-based solution—to remove the chromophores, restore and preserve the piece (and others in similarly precarious conservation predicaments) for future generations.


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  1. It’s sad to witness the deterioration of such a magnificent drawing. hopefully, modern scientists will be able to use all the means at their disposal to stop the disintegration and preserve its actual state. I’m glad contemporary artists and other art enthusiasts who use real archival material on their work will not have to worry about similar declination of their artworks.

  2. I have a similar period red chalk drawing, not as yellow but seems to be fading, Labeled (Michelangelo) by someone at a later date, The handwriting is circa 1800’s but most likely not a Michelangelo but about 400 years old. The key to the true artist would be a description in the collectors notes, it has a collectors mark or inventory mark on the back in ink, No:20. I am looking for any other old Master Drawings with the same type of inventory mark. The (N) is in a beautiful script done by quill pen circa 1700’s. This drawing is a possible image of St. Mark.

  3. I do hope conservationists are able to preserve the drawing. I have used this image for so many years in my teaching of the Renaissance

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