Friday, February 12, 2016

Collected Color: The Harvard Pigment Library

As color experts, we're always excited to share new developments in the field with our readers. This month we're delighted to report that the Forbes Pigment Collection at the Harvard Art Museums is is now open to the public. 

The precious pigments are newly assembled in floor-to-ceiling white cabinets based on the color wheel. Some are stored in their original delicate glass containers. Library visitors can even watch art conservators at work.

Photos courtesy of Zak Jensen & Andrea Shea/WBUR 

Photo by Andrea Shea/WBUR

The collection was conceived as a "laboratory for fine arts" in the 1920s by Edward Forbes, who later founded the Fogg Art Museum.  It contains more than 2,500 pigments, including Egyptian blue glass from 1,000 BC and rare nuggets from Pompeii, as well as modern synthetic pigments.

Photo by Peter Vanderwarker

Some pigments have colorful backstories, as the Harvard Gazette recently reported. Lapis lazuli stone, mined from quarries in Afghanistan, was used in medieval paintings and considered more precious than gold. A deep blue-red extracted from predatory sea snails was so costly Byzantine emperors banned its use outside the imperial court.  The color later became known as “royal purple.”

Photo by Stephanie Mitchell

As for the history of the collection, Edward Forbes became interested in pigments shortly after he purchased the 14th-century Tuscan painting Madonna and Child with Saint in 1899. When the piece began to deteriorate, Forbes sought out pigments to help restore it. By the 1920s he was traveling the world in search of rare pigments. 

Portrait of Edward Waldo Forbes (1873-1969) by Charles Hopkinson, 1940

As the Harvard Gazette writes, Forbes’ fascination with a painting’s colors fueled his desire to use science to understand and study great works of art. He is often referred to as the father of art conservation in the United States.

Photo by Andrea Shea/WBUR

Narayan Khandekar, Director of the Straus Center for Conservation and Research, which houses the Forbes Pigment Library/Photo by Stephanie Mitchell

In 1927 Forbes established the Department of Research and Restoration at Harvard’s Fogg Museum.  By the 1940s the department was being used to both authenticate and restore important works of art. Since then, samples of the precious pigments have been loaned to many museums and research facilities around the world.  In a widely reported case in 2007, the research facility was used to invalidate two paintings attributed to Jackson Pollock. 

We at Colour Studio look forward to a first-hand visit to the collection, so stay tuned for field notes. In the meantime you can find information on visiting the library or attending a workshop at Harvard Arts Museums.