What is a realistic expectation for the ‘service life’ of a painting? How long can one expect a painting to last when using best practices and reasonably archival materials?
We don’t have any definite answers, but we’ll try to put things into perspective for you. The oldest surviving body of work from the Western painting tradition, which is structurally akin to paintings as we know them today, with panel support, ground and paint layers, and varnish, are altarpieces from the late 13th century. Whether contemporary paintings will also last 700 years and longer is hard to say. The life cycle of a painting depends on many factors, including natural aging, storage conditions, accidental damage, being repaired or painted over, and being sold and resold. Let’s look at these factors and some typical stations in the life of a painting.
Storage: A Safe Place
Unless a painting belongs to the culturally most important group of a collection, the archive is likely going to be its permanent home. However, efforts are being made to digitalize collections and more museums have visible storages. About 95% or more of museum collections are in storage and maintaining these storage spaces makes up a significant part of museum budgets.  There is a trend of museum storages getting overcrowded and artworks being stored in temporarily rented storage spaces, meaning more frequent transports, or being kept in provisional spaces like corridors.  In general, however, we can consider museum storage a safe place for paintings, with well controlled environments. Compared to the professional storage of either private or public collections, artist’s storage spaces may be a whole different story. Lack of space might tempt artists to stack or roll their paintings too tightly. Other typical risk factors are humid climates causing mold and extreme temperature fluctuations, as well as pests and leakages. Ideally, paintings are stored away from UV-light, at relative humidity levels between 40 and 60% and at temperatures between 60-80°F / 16–25°C. Paintings should be stretched rather than rolled and stored vertically, without anything touching the surface.
Here are links to articles with best practice storage advice:
- Technical Forum Q&A: Storage & Transport
- Rolling Acrylic Paintings for Shipping or Storage
- Storage and Display Guidelines for Paintings – Canadian Conservation Institute (CCI) Notes 10/3: https://www.canada.ca/en/conservation-institute/services/conservation-preservation-publications/canadian-conservation-institute-notes/storage-display-guidelines-paintings.html
Transit: The Adventurous Life of Traveling Paintings
Paintings are moved around more than ever, for traveling temporary exhibitions and due to art dealers and collectors buying internationally although, the pandemic has caused a temporary slow-down. There are fine art logistics companies, like Hasenkamp and Gander & White, with well-trained art handlers and State-of-the-art packing and crating standards, which are used by museums, auction houses and private collectors worldwide. Additionally, museum conservators usually chaperone important museum artwork during transit. All this minimizes risks. Nonetheless, most insurance claims for art damage arise from transport, due to mishandling or inappropriate shipping and packing.  Here is our packaging advice: Pack and Ship Resource Guide.
Impact of Materials & Technique
With their choices for materials and techniques, artists have great influence on the longevity of their artwork. When we look back in history, we find a great demonstration of the correlation between materials and a painting’s longevity in the Renaissance ‘Tüchlein’ paintings. These were distemper (pigment bound in animal glue) or egg tempera paintings (pigment bound in egg yolk and water) on merely sized linen (sized with parchment glue, Gum Arabic or starch). Tüchlein paintings originated in England and were popular until the end of the 15th century in Italy and until around 1570 in Germany and the Netherlands. All together only 100 Tüchlein paintings of Dutch, German and Italian artists have survived to today, while we still have many more paintings on wooden panels from the same time.  Of the medieval painter Albrecht Dürer, for example, 11 tempera tüchlein paintings and 84 oil on panel paintings are still in collections. Artists were aware of the short-lived nature of tempera-on-linen paintings, which is why they were used mainly for sketches, festive ecclesiastical banners or for wall decoration, being cheaper alternatives to tapestry and quicker to make than oil paintings on panel. The ‘problem’ in the tüchlein technique is comparable to modern stain paintings, where the vulnerable raw canvas is largely exposed. Additionally, tempera paint films are of a brittle nature. Applied over a flexible support and often not stretched, this would lead to delamination of the paint layers, making the depictions less sharp or readable.
Obviously, higher quality art materials have their price and sometimes we hear artists argue that painters like Picasso and Pollock also used house paint and their works are in great condition. We generally don’t recommend the use of house paints on flexible supports, although it is true that Picasso and his contemporaries used and modified house paint for some of their paintings and these paints have held up better than expected.  Particularly the earliest commercially available enamel paint called Ripolin, which has been identified in several Picasso paintings, was chemically similar to artist’s tube paints.  Whether or not contemporary house paints and lacquers would hold up equally well, we don’t know. Cracking and cleaving paint layers have been brought into connection with the experimental use of house paints in the works of modern abstract painter Hans Hofmann  and the experimental mixed media pieces of the contemporary artist Anselm Kiefer are, though intentionally, so fragile that their transport without damage isn’t possible.  In general it is important to keep in mind that just because a painting seems to be in a good condition when viewed in a gallery, it doesn’t mean its original condition is really well preserved. Well executed restorations can be hard to see, especially under minimal lighting conditions and from a safe distance common in public display areas.
Restoration & Conservation: Risk or Rescue
Most museums don’t have a conservation plan for their entire collection, but rather can only afford treating paintings for loans and special exhibitions, which comes down to roughly every 80 -100 years.  There are exceptions though. Culturally highly important paintings might end up in the conservation studio more frequently. Rembrandt’s Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp (1632, Mauritshuis) underwent 23 documented treatments from 1700 to 1996. Not because of its poor condition, but because a section of the painting had been overpainted several times according to current interests.  Indeed, former restorations and their removal constitute a significant part of the work of today’s conservators. Some outdated restoration practices were actually damaging paintings, but also our perspective and sense of aesthetic has changed.  We now have greater appreciation of an artist’s intention and are more willing to accept whatever the artist’s decision may have been for their artwork. A good example of the breach of authority over artworks is the varnishing of Impressionist paintings, which were intended to remain unvarnished. As the matte surface sheen of unvarnished oil paintings was a novelty in the 1870s, art collectors and galleries varnished these paintings without the artist’s consent. The removal of these varnishes poses new challenges to conservators. One of Van Gogh’s famous Sunflowers paintings, for example, dating from 1889 (now 133 years old) has undergone at least 4 treatments, all around varnish and surface appearance.  The yellowing of varnishes and the then necessary removal and revarnishing has been a major cause for restoration treatments ever since. Before restorers had modern solvents, good lights and appropriate tools for magnification, it was common that paint layers were abraded during varnish removal, making overpainting necessary. Nowadays, we have modern removable resins available for picture varnishes which are much more resistant to yellowing and additionally often contain UV-inhibitors. The transparency within the conservation community, the high educational standards and the ever developing and improving materials and tools available to conservators, make it less and less likely that paintings will get damaged or even destroyed by contemporary professional conservators.
Total Loss: The End or New Beginning
When a painting gets damaged beyond repair, it can be declared a ‘total loss’. Damaged beyond repair doesn’t necessarily mean it couldn’t be fixed again, but the cost for the conservation treatment is estimated higher than the value of the painting and it’s cheaper for insurance companies to pay out the value of the painting. Such paintings officially have no market value anymore and are either destroyed or placed in insurance company warehouses in hopes of selling them again. Salvaged art has a large gray market, although, artists can disclaim work under the Visual Artists Rights Act, which then makes reselling impossible. Some educational institutions work with such devalued paintings in their painting conservation training programs.
A Final Word
Here at GOLDEN is a whole team of Materials and Application Specialists, available for you to give best practice advice and answer your individual materials questions. Also, take a look at our technical info section on our website, our videos, and articles here on Just Paint. Please let us know if there is a topic that we’ve not covered yet or that you’d like us to dive deeper into. We strive to make our content relevant and helpful for artists, so your comments and suggestions are most welcome.
 Wadum, Jorgen and Petria Noble, Is there an ethical problem after the twenty-third treatment of Rembrandt’s Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp?, ICOM-CC 1999.
3 thoughts on “Life of a Painting”
I wonder if those paintings written off as lost because of paint losses could be restored differently. By replacing like, with like. To recreate the original work rather than merely (not to discredit the fine work of restorers) make those losses invisible to the viewer with removable colours. The equivalency of rebuilding the lost sections of a centuries old building with the same type of stone or timber. Perhaps as is often done in these cases, of not trying to hide the newness of these replacement materials. Eventually one runs into the future possibility of having something in the nature of ‘the family hammer’ “Been in the family for over a hundred years. Only had four new handles and two new heads.” But at least you still have a hammer instead of none at all.
Somewhere lost in my notes there are recorded the public views from the early days of oil painting. Oil painting that made more visibly apparent that they were using a canvas as a support and thus not with a smoothed out priming ground, were often looked upon poorly. As they were associated with the cheap stained fake tapestries; those workers were under a completely different guild from the standard artists.
As I remember it, there was a whole industry in England making these ‘fake’ tapestries, and I don’t think even one of them has survived to this day.