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A Pigment Library That Launched American Art Conservation

The pigments in the collection come from all over the world, and some are stored in their original delicate glass containers. Photo: Zak Jensen.
Historic pigments in the Straus Center collection at Harvard Art Museums, which is reopening this Sunday (photograph by Zak Jensen, all images courtesy Harvard Art Museums)

When the Harvard Art Museums reopen this Sunday after a six-year expansion project, historic pigments foundational to the field of art conservation in the United States will be on public view. A new display will showcase the Forbes Pigment Collection as part of the Straus Center for Conservation and Technical Studies.

The laboratory, as WBUR reported this week, is a component of the merger of Harvard’s three art museums — Fogg, Busch-Reisinger, and Arthur M. Sackler — into one complex. Through glass walls visitors can see scientific conservation in process, which goes back to the Fogg’s founding in 1927 and pioneer conservator and director Edward Waldo Forbes. While collecting art around the world for the new museum, Forbes got intrigued by how paintings were made, and why some deteriorated. Gradually and then obsessively he amassed a collection of painting pigments, many of which are displayed in their original glass containers on a wall of the Straus Center.

“It was put together by Edward Forbes in an attempt to understand the material nature of works of art, and that approach to understanding art had not been taken before,” Senior Conservation Scientist Narayan Khandekar told Hyperallergic over the phone. “It was the beginning of the scientific approach for conservation in the United States.”

Portrait of Edward Waldo Forbes and Paul J. Sachs with bust of Victor Hugo, 1944. Photograph by George Woodruff. Photographs of the Harvard Art Museum, 1927-2001 (HC 22), file 3.186. Harvard Art Museums Archives, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA
Edward Waldo Forbes & Paul J. Sachs with bust of Victor Hugo (1944) (photograph by George Woodruff, courtesy Harvard Art Museums Archives)

Later Forbes hired scientist Rutherford John Gettens, who examined the chemistry of pigments and innovated tools like a microsampler for taking art specimens. Now conservators can examine how a color has changed over time — like pararealgar, that was originally red and reacted with light into yellow — and the original components of art through the pigment library.

Only a small part of the collection was on view in the original building. Now they’re assembled in white cabinets based on the color wheel, with yellow at the center going out to blue and purple and beyond. Khandekar noted the pigments are often standards for historic colors (an online database of them is used by conservators across the globe). For example, one of the yellows was integral to recent research on a Georges Seurat work.

“It was before he was painting with all these little dots, and in it, we found these pigments, these tiny bright yellow needles,” Khandekar explained. “I said that it looked like Indian yellow and we had a sample of it and we were able to compare it, and it was the same.” That Indian yellow, while available in 19th century France and used by Seurat for its intense color, was banned by the British government as it was made from the dried urine of cows fed just mango leaves, and deemed cruel to the animals.

Alongside the thousands of pigment samples are materials used to make them, like the semi-precious stone ground up for the vibrantly blue lapis lazuli, and scientists at the center are still adding contemporary pigments to the collection. There are also other components of the materials of art, like binding media and geological samples related to classical sculpture. And it’s just one aspect of the rebranded museum opening up its history and resources after the years of closure. “It’s part of the museum becoming a more transparent institution,” Khandekar said.

Narayan Khandekar, senior conservation scientist at the Harvard Art Museums, installs the pigment collection in the Straus Center for Conservation and Technical Studies. Photo: Antoinette Hocbo.
Narayan Khandekar, senior conservation scientist at the Harvard Art Museums, installs the pigment collection in the Straus Center for Conservation and Technical Studies (photograph by Antoinette Hocbo)
The Straus Center’s materials collection includes an impressive array of pigments to aid research and conservation work. Photo: © Peter Vanderwarker.
Historic pigments at the Straus Center (photograph by Peter Vanderwarker)
The pigments in the collection come from all over the world, and some are stored in their original delicate glass containers. Photo: Zak Jensen.
The pigments in the collection come from all over the world, and some are stored in their original delicate glass containers (photograph by Zak Jensen)
The Harvard Art Museums, during renovation and expansion, showing the Straus Center for Conservation and Technical Studies. Photo: Zak Jensen.
The Harvard Art Museums, during renovation and expansion, showing the Straus Center for Conservation and Technical Studies (photograph by Zak Jensen)

Harvard Art Museums (32 Quincy Street, Cambridge, Massachusetts) reopen this Sunday, November 16. 

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