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Collected Color: The Harvard Pigment Library

WEDNESDAY, FEBRUARY 24, 2016

By Jill Pilaroscia


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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 now open to the public. 

Forbes Pigment Collection

Photos courtesy Jill Pilaroscia, photographers noted; Photos by Zak Jensen & Andrea Shea/WBUR

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.

Forbes Pigment Collection

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.

Forbes Pigment Collection

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.”

Forbes Pigment Collection

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.

Forbes Pigment Collection

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.

Forbes Pigment Collection

Photo by Andrea Shea/WBUR

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 on loan 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. 

Forbes Pigment Collection
Photo by Stephanie Mitchell

Narayan Khandekar is the director of the Straus Center for Conservation and Research, which houses the Forbes Pigment Library.

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.

ABOUT THE BLOGGER

Jill Pilaroscia

“Life in Color” is co-authored by architectural color consultant Jill Pilaroscia (pictured), BFA, and creative writer Allison Serrell. Pilaroscia’s firm, Colour Studio Inc., is based in San Francisco. A fully accredited member of the International Association of Color Consultants, Pilaroscia writes and lectures widely on the art and science of color.

SEE ALL CONTENT FROM THIS CONTRIUBTOR

   

Tagged categories: Aesthetics; Architectural history; Artists; Color; Color forecasts; Color matching; Color selection; Color trends; Colorants; Decorative painting; Design; Historic Preservation; Interior design; Pigments; Raw materials

Comment from Tom Schwerdt, (2/25/2016, 1:09 PM)

That's really awesome! Could you find out more detail on the lighting sources (ie: fluorescent, LED, special museum-grade LED, spectral power curve, CRI, color temperature, etc) to fully characterize the illumination? Light source variations can have a VAST effect on the appearance of some pigments. Also, whether the glass is coated to block UV and thus reduce deterioration.


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