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Harvard’s Colorful Secret

The materials collection, including the Forbes collection of pigments and the Gettens collection of media and varnishes, at the Strauss Center for Conservation and Technical Studies, Harvard Art Museums.  Photo via fastcodesign.com

If you’ve ever looked at a sunset, had to decide on a paint color for a room or the right shade of curtains, or even match dresses together for a wedding, then you’re probably familiar with the endless options of color. From blue hues to deep reds, Crayola doesn’t even have a name for them all. However, Edward Forbes, historian and director of the Fogg Art Museum at Harvard University from 1909 to 1944, gave us a pretty good idea of just how colorful our world is.

Vials of pigments in the Strauss Center’s materials collection.  Photo via fastcodesign.com

Tucked away in Harvard’s library are some of the most amazing pigments that Forbes discovered. He traveled the world gathering pigments of all shades in an effort to authenticate classical Italian paintings.

The pigments in the Forbes collection come from all over the world, and some are stored in their original delicate glass containers. Jenny Stenger, © President and Fellows of Harvard College

“The most unusual colors from Harvard’s storied pigment library include beetle extracts, poisonous metals, and human mummies.”

Harvard Art Museums, © President and Fellows of Harvard College

The Straus Center’s materials collection includes an impressive array of pigments to aid research and conservation work. Photo: Peter Vanderwarker

Today, Edward Forbes is known as the “Father of art conservation in the United States,” and his astounding collection lives on as the Forbes Pigment Collection. If you’re ever in the Harvard area, a visit to the library might be worth the stop. This one holds a greater story than books alone could tell.

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