Monday, 2 May 2016




By now, we museum people know you can collect virtually anything, but have you seen anyone try to collect colours? The Forbes Pigment Collection at Harvard University Library, does just that by collecting artist pigments from around the globe ranging from historically used pigments to materials used in contemporary paintings. The Forbes Pigment collection is on display at the Harvard Art Museum in the form of a wall of colour, and each colour has its own story to tell. 

Collect the rainbow! (Source)
It may seem bizarre to say that colours are something we take for granted, but we live in a world crowded with visual stimulus where colours are commonplace, and artists who are still using traditional media can pick up pre-mixed paints at art supply stores, if they haven’t moved to a digital medium where colours are almost unlimited. However the untold story of colours are that they were historically extremely difficult to get, and when you could get them, they were expensive luxuries. In fact at one point lapis lazuli, the stone which is used to create a brilliant ultramarine pigment was more expensive than gold. Historian Michael Baxandall writes in his 1988 book, Painting and Experience in Fifteenth-Century Italy: A Primer in the Social History of Pictorial Style,that in the fifteenth century, contracts between painters and their wealthy patrons would include budget lines specifying how much ultramarine blue, and what grade of pigment, was to be used in the painting. 

Who knew Harvard was so colourful? (Source)
The fifteenth century was not the only time when notable colours became trendy in the art world. In the 18th and 19th century a pigment called Mummy Brown which is in the Forbes Collection, was very popular and was made out of brown resin harvested from Egyptian mummies. Even today colours can be contentious in the art world. Take for example, the recent invention of Vantablack, which absorbs 99.9 percent of radiation in the spectrum making it the blackest material on earth. Contemporary artist Anselm Kiefer bought exclusive artistic rights to Vantablack, controversially making it illegal for other artists to use it.
Pigments for days. (Source)
The Forbes pigment collection isn’t just useful for the stories it can tell us about colours, but is an invaluable scientific resource when it comes to authenticating paintings and in conservation. The Forbes pigment collection gets its name from Edward Forbes who was a former director of the Fogg Art Museum. Forbes traveled the world, collecting pigments between 1910-around 1940, to be used to authenticate historic paintings. His interest in pigments was sparked by his concern over a 14th century painting he had purchased, which he noticed was rapidly deteriorating. Through his collection of pigments and in his post as director of the Fogg Museum, Forbes became known as one of the pioneers of art conservation in the United States. He pioneered the idea of a laboratory for art conservation, which has influenced the way museum workers approach pieces of art. Today, the Forbes Pigment Collection is still used as a conservation tool, and samples of the pigments are used in techniques that can determine the exact chemical composition of a pigment, and in conservation efforts.

For further reading:

Michael Baxandall (1988) ‘Conditions of Trade’/‘The Period Eye: Volumes’
in Painting and Experience in Fifteenth-Century Italy: A Primer in the Social History of Pictorial Style, Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 1-27 and 86-93

Francesca G. Bewer (2010) A Laboratory for Art: Harvard's Fogg Museum and the Emergence of Conservation in America, 1900-1950, Harvard University Art Museums

Diana Budds, (03/21/16) "The Harvard Library that protects the worlds rarest colours." FastCo Design

Kate Sierzputowski (01/08/2016) "Harvard’s Colorful Library Filled With 2,500 Pigments Collected from Around the World"

Colleen Walsh  (09/17/2015) "A wall of colour, a window to the past." Harvard Gazette

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