At The Forbes Pigment Collection, Little Jars Contain Bold Colors Conservators, preservationists, artists, art historians and serious art fans can consult the Harvard Art Museums' collection to analyze and imitate the colors that painters used many centuries ago.
NPR logo Tiny Little Jars Contain Big, Bold Colors In The Forbes Pigment Collection

Tiny Little Jars Contain Big, Bold Colors In The Forbes Pigment Collection

Looks like your spice rack on steroids? Nope. Although the colors are a feast for the eyes. Caitlin Cunningham Photography/Forbes Pigment Collection at the Harvard Art Museums hide caption

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Caitlin Cunningham Photography/Forbes Pigment Collection at the Harvard Art Museums

Looks like your spice rack on steroids? Nope. Although the colors are a feast for the eyes.

Caitlin Cunningham Photography/Forbes Pigment Collection at the Harvard Art Museums

Do you have a shrine? Religious, maybe, but not necessarily. A place where you are filled with awe?

I have several. One (you won't believe this) was the former Liberace Museum. Liberace, who died in 1987, was a fabulous musician with a collection of pianos, including one that once belonged to George Gershwin. (You must take a moment to watch this video of the understated, dignified Wladziu Valentino Liberace playing Gershwin on another piano in his collection.)

George Gershwin is my favorite composer. Seeing his piano at the Liberace Museum was such a thrill I simply could not resist touching the keys. Lightly. But verboten. Awed and still guilty, years later I confessed my transgression on the air to a curator there. "Don't feel badly," she said. "Every visitor does that."

Shrine No. 2 is the library at Princeton University. There for a story on F. Scott Fitzgerald, I asked the librarian to see some of the great author's papers. From a carton, he pulled out the manuscript of The Great Gatsby.

"Would you like a look at it?" Oh, old sport!

I actually held the page in my hands. No curator's gloves. The paper so brittle that edges flaked off at my touch (he was writing it in 1924). Guilty again, I reluctantly handed it back. But the thrill, the awe, remains.

All of which brings me to Ann Hoenigswald, retired conservator of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. Asked about the Forbes Pigment Collection at the Harvard Art Museums, Hoenigswald said, "to a conservator, to see the display in Cambridge, it's really awe-inspiring .... almost like a shrine."

The Forbes Pigment Collection at the Harvard Art Museums. Caitlin Cunningham Photography/Forbes Pigment Collection at the Harvard Art Museums hide caption

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Caitlin Cunningham Photography/Forbes Pigment Collection at the Harvard Art Museums

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 hide caption

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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 hide caption

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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.

Indian Yellow in the Forbes Pigment Collection
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 hide caption

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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."

Art Where You're At is an informal series showcasing lively online offerings at museums closed due to COVID-19, or at re-opening museums you may not be able to visit.