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Harvard Art Museums put pigments on display

Narayan Khandekar, senior conservation scientist at Harvard Art Museums with the museum’s pigment collection.
Narayan Khandekar, senior conservation scientist at Harvard Art Museums with the museum’s pigment collection.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

CAMBRIDGE — There are no galleries on the fourth floor of the new Harvard Art Museums complex, which reopens to the public Nov. 16 after a six-year renovation and expansion. Yet it boasts a sight whose beauty rivals that of the artwork displayed on the levels below.

Visible behind the glass doors of a set of simple dove-gray cabinets is the pigment collection of Harvard’s Straus Center for Conservation and Technical Studies. On the shelves are bags, boxes, tubes, phials, bottles, bladders, cans, and jars containing the ultimate chromatic spice rack: seasonings meant for eye rather than tongue. Harvard, which has been collecting historical pigments since 1910, uses them for restoring and authenticating paintings.

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The collection comprises nearly 2,000 pigments, along with more than 1,000 items of related materials. Those items include brushes, palettes, waxes, gums, resins, varnishes, John Singer Sargent’s paintbox, and at least one bottle of Elmer’s Glue-All. Artists use the stuff, too. The rest of the museum may be about art, but the Straus Center and its collection are about art-making (and repair). “It’s not just a display of things that never get used,” says senior conservation scientist Narayan Khandekar.

Harvard’s old Fogg Museum had a small selection of pigments on display. Showing the entire collection was the architects’ idea, Khandekar says. “We thought long and hard about it, whether it was appropriate or not, given the light-sensitive nature [of the materials]. But when we looked at it, most of the pigments had been heavily exposed to light already. What we found was that while the outside may have faded, the inside had remained the original color. So it seemed like a great way to share what we’re doing with the museum-visiting public.”

The names of the pigments can be as beautiful as the colors: ultramarine pink, pompeiian blue, genuine cobalt violet. Modern pigments have less poetic-sounding names: PR-251, PR-254 (“PR” for “pigment red”). “But they’re very important,” Khandekar says. “They’re all used in paints today.” Modern pigments, while also on display, are kept separate from their vintage counterparts.

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The historical pigments are so varied — in age, origin, container — that a single coherent display scheme wasn’t immediately obvious. Then Khandekar hit upon the most basic of organizing principles: the color wheel. Yellow pigments are in the center, with green, blue, and purple to one side and orange, red, and purple again on the other.

On shelves beneath the pigments are the materials they were made from: minerals such as lapis lazuli, plant matter, and even animal products. A curious-looking saffron ball, Khandekar explains, is Indian yellow. Its source? “The urine of cows that have been fed solely on mango leaves.”

Khandekar, 50, came to Harvard in 2001. Earlier, he’d worked at the Getty Museum, in Los Angeles, and the Fitzwilliam Museum, in Cambridge, England. He has a doctorate in chemistry from the University of Melbourne, in Australia, and did graduate work at London’s Courtauld Institute of Art. “What I found when I was doing my PhD,” he says, “was that I kept going to art galleries a lot. I wanted to bring chemistry and art together in some way. Conservation seemed the natural way into that.”

Harvard’s approach is unusual among art museums, Khandekar says, in its emphasis on the art-making part of art history. The pigment display speaks to that.

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“The architects were convinced that this would be a positive feature in the museum,” Khandekar says. “When I look at the different levels now, across the courtyard, it makes a lot of sense. You’ve got the basic ingredients of paintings. What you just need to do is add a talented artist to those basic components, then you end up with what’s in the galleries below.”

Related coverage:

Special section: Harvard Art Museums

View from the Harvard Art Museums’ Calderwood Courtyard


Mark Feeney can be reached at mfeeney@globe.com.