Forbes pigment collection at Harvard

June 21, 2019 — Harvard Art Museums’ Pigment Lab. Photo by Caitlin Cunningham.
June 28, 2019 — Harvard Art Museums’ Pigment Lab. Photo by Caitlin Cunningham.


A HISTORY OF COLOR: AN AUDIO TOUR OF THE FORBES PIGMENT COLLECTION

www.harvardartmuseums.org

Those glass vials contain some of the more than 2,700 samples of pigments — colored particles mixed with material that binds them together — linseed or walnut or safflower oil, or eggs. Tada! Colored paint. 

The Forbes Pigment Collection gives conservators, preservationists, artists, art historians and serious art fans a chance to see, analyze, imitate the precise colors used by various painters. Collection curator Narayan Khandekar says it’s a chance to “have a conversation with the artist” even though he or she has been dead for centuries.

Van Gogh’s 1888 Self-Portrait Dedicated to Paul Gauguin (left) and Emerald Green in the Forbes Pigment Collection.

Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum; Harvard Art Museums/Straus Center for Conservation and Technical Studies

Van Gogh used emerald green for this self-portrait. Bright, great to look at. “The trouble is that it’s toxic,” says conservation scientist Khandekar. “It’s made from arsenic.” Mixed with copper, it produces this gorgeous color. 

Khandekar says there’s speculation that when the British exiled Napoleon to Saint Helena, they covered the walls with emerald green wallpaper, perhaps to slowly poison him when humidity released particles into the island air. Nobody knows for sure. But as we say in journalism, never let facts get in the way of a good story.

It’s remarkable how many nasty ingredients go into making some of the most beautiful colors: bugs, urine, manure. 

Bugs first. The cochineal insect. Lives on cacti in Mexico and South America. Ground up, its shell makes an incredible bright red color. Your lipstick, your makeup, your Caravaggio has cochineal dye in it.

The deep red color carmine is derived from an acid that cochineal insects produce to fend off predators.

Desiree Martin/AFP via Getty Images

According to Khandekar, “it was the second largest source of wealth (after silver) for the Spanish empire.” 

Urine from Indian cows (yes, you read it right) was pay dirt for painters like J.M.W. Turner, Thomas Gainsborough and Georges Seurat.

Harvard Art Museums/Straus Center for Conservation and Technical Studies

They and so many others used Indian Yellow — thanks to Asian cows that were only given mango leaves to eat. The color’s not made this way these days. Mercifully. 

Which brings us to manure. Again from cows. “They do pigments a great service, don’t they?” observes Khandekar. There wouldn’t be Lead White without them. Again, toxic. Again, used in cosmetics. Again, not made this way now. You’ll have to listen to this link on the Forbes’ new audio tour, to hear where the manure comes in. 

Look (as Joe Biden would say), we can’t just end with unpleasantries. So here’s a perfectly proper blue in a Botticelli from the Harvard Art Museums’ collection.

Botticelli’s The Virgin and Child (left) and Ultramarine #4 (Lapis Lazuli; Genuine) in the Forbes Pigment Collection.

Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum; Harvard Art Museums/Straus Center for Conservation and Technical Studies

That Ultramarine Blue was made with crushed lapis lazuli, probably mined in Afghanistan. Botticelli used it six centuries ago. Old, but not that ancient as pigments go. The cavemen used charcoal and ochre pigments. Which shows how important creating art has always been to who we are as humans.

“These guys were out there hunting, gathering, trying to stay alive,” Khandekar says. “And yet they still found time to make art.” 

  • As reported by NPR’s Susan Stamberg, October 29, 2020


2 thoughts on “Forbes pigment collection at Harvard”

    1. thank you Dale.
      I don’t want to even think about how they extracted the poor cow’s urine….
      we were warned about Naples Yellow in undergrad school because of the lead content.
      Emerald green is a gorgeous color! 🙂

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