Anyone who has in the past made the climb to the fourth floor of the Harvard University Art Museums, which remain closed because of COVID-19, has had an experience both transfixing and frustrating.
Looking across the atrium of the Calderwood Courtyard, you can see behind transparent walls an array of glass-fronted cabinets filled with small bottles and jars and test tubes. Each vessel contains one of some 2,700 pigments.
Those contents make up the Forbes Pigment Collection, part of the museums’ Straus Center for Conservation and Technical Studies. In addition, there are 1,600 samples and other items making up the Gettens Collection of Binding Media and Varnishes, also part of the Straus Center.
Think of what you see as an apothecary shop for paintings.
What makes the experience transfixing for museumgoers is that the space behind that glass wall has such visual appeal. It could be an installation created by Mark Dion.
What makes the experience frustrating is that the space is closed to the public.
The pigment collection is now open online, sort of. Straus director Narayan Khandekar and conservation coordinator Alison Cariens host what Khandekar calls “a colorful tour through some of our favorite pigments." He and Cariens provide audio commentary about the origins and uses of specific pigments. The audio accompanies more than 30 visual presentations. Each consists of a picture of the pigment in its phial, with many presentations also including examples of artworks from Harvard’s collection in which that pigment was used.
You learn that Tyrian purple, made from Murex shellfish, takes its name from Tyre, in what is now Lebanon, where that pigment was most commonly produced in the ancient world. Carbon black? That pigment also includes lamp black, soot black, and vine black. None of them is to be confused with bone black (made from burnt animal tusks, horns, and bones) or Mars black. That kind of black — who knew there were so many variations on what is commonly thought of as the absence color — comes from synthetic iron oxides. Kerry James Marshall uses Mars black to spectacular effect in his 2008 painting “Untitled.”
Egyptian blue, the world’s oldest synthetic pigment, was made to imitate lapis lazuli. Natural ultramarine, another blue pigment, comes from crushed lapis lazuli. Prussian blue is the first modern synthetic pigment. Emerald green, a favorite of Vincent Van Gogh, dominates his “Self-Portrait Dedicated to Paul Gauguin,” in Harvard’s collection.
Dragon’s Blood Red — the Forbes collection at its most “Game of Thrones” — was named by the Roman writer Pliny. PR254 sounds like the name of a “Star Wars” robot. The letters stand for “pigment red.” It was a popular choice for automotive bodies in the ’90s. Kermes lice, another form of red, is produced by crushing the insect of that name. Our word “crimson” is derived from the name. For some reason, Harvard goes with “the crimson” as the nickname for its sports teams, not “the lice.”
So much of the appeal of the pigments has to do with the distant and exotic origins many of them have. The backstories are as colorful, so to speak, as the colors themselves. But YInMn Blue was discovered at Oregon State University in 2009. Conversely, Green Earth comes by its environmentally-friendly name quite naturally: It’s a compound of the minerals celadonite and glauconite.
Nearly all of the pigment names are cool. Some would be good for bands: synthetic ultramarine, lead tin yellow, weld. The histories are cool. Even the containers they come in are cool, from labels (some hand-written, others typed) to coverings (screw tops, glass stoppers, corks).
With more than 2,600 pigments left to discuss, Harvard might want to consider starting a Forbes podcast — or, at the very least, expanding the website. Vantablack or potter’s pink, anyone?
A HISTORY OF COLOR: AN AUDIO TOUR OF THE FORBES PIGMENT COLLECTION
Mark Feeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.