Brown resin extracted from Egyptian mummies, yellow and red from poisonous metals, orange dye from the lipstick tree, and the bright red of squashed beetle. These are just a handful of over 2,500 of the rarest colours in the world that make up the Forbes Pigment Collection, which is held in the Harvard Art Museum. It’s named after historian Edward Forbes who was the director of Fogg Art Museum at Harvard University between 1909 and 1944 and is considered one of the most important art conservationist in the States. He travelled the world to amass pigments that would help him authenticate classical Italian paintings by providing comparisons to standard dyes.
In 2007 the Forbes Pigment Collection helped to prove that a supposed rediscovered Jackson Pollock painting was a fake after exposing a red pigment in the artist’s work that hadn’t been manufactured until 20 years after his death. The collection is mostly used for scientific research and for the last 10 years Narayan Khandekar, director of the Straus Centre for Conservation and Technical Studies at the Harvard Art Museum, has been rebuilding it again to aid analysis of 20th century and contemporary art.
Every jar is labelled with fascinating details about origin, production and use of the pigments contained within. From the mineral deposit Lapis Lazuli that was prized for its brilliant blue tone and extracted when it was more expensive than gold from a remote area of Afghanistan, to Cadmium Yellow from the heavy metal Cadmium, which was favoured by Impressionist painters and, despite being found to be very toxic, appeared in Lego bricks as late as the 1970s. As Khandekar has noted, “every pigment has its own story.”
Images from Harvard Gazette.