The Radium Portrait

Portrait of Grace Fryer (1899-1933), made of antique and vintage radium watch hands on paper, 2020

Above: the portrait, unframed, 37,5x50cm

The Radium Girls were factory workers in the 1920s who contracted radium poisoning from painting watch dials with self-luminous, radioactive paint. The women had been told the paint was harmless and were instructed to “point” their brushes on their lips to save time and money in the painting process. Because of these reasons, they were also not allowed to use cloths or water bowls to rinse their brushes. Countless women got sick after a while, all of them died. Five women sued their employer before their untimely deaths, Grace was one of them. The women knew when they’d get ill by the paint, since they ingested a lot of radium they started to glow in the dark themselves, just as this portrait will do.

These lawsuits were very important for the labour rights movement. In the wake of the case, industrial safety standards were demonstrably enhanced for many decades.

More than 2400 luminous antique and vintage radium watch hands have been used to create this portrait of Grace. Radium watch parts are still widely available for purchase, all parts have been purchased at watch fairs and watch shops.


The Radium Portrait is part of the corporate art collection of COVRA, Vlissingen, NL.

Below: photos of the portrait in the dark, and some close ups.