The Harvard Art Museums hold over 2500 of the world’s rarest pigments, from bits of Egyptian blue glass dating to 1,000 BCE to newly released fluorescent hues. Public access to the colour library has been restricted – until now, where, in An Atlas of Rare & Familiar Colour, the collection is excavated by Atelier Éditions in startling detail and vividity, through gradated colour-coded chapters.
Inside the gloriously retro, 60s-inspired rainbow hardback, we find an encyclopedic photobook of poised still lifes, where each phial, herb and pigment-filled container becomes a character, narrating the fascinating history of colour.
Former Fogg Art Museum Director Edward Forbes started the collection at the turn of the 20th century, in the interest of preserving the early Italian paintings he had just begun to collect. Through the years, word of mouth helped the collection to grow into a vast apothecary of bottles and beakers as other art lovers and experts donated their own pigments. Continually growing, the collection helps experts worldwide to research and authenticate paintings.
Madder Lake Straus.1600 Fezandie & Sperrle Inc, USA, 1936. © Pascale Georgiev for Atelier Éditions
In Cambridge, Forbes’ legacy thrives in the museums’ Straus Center for Conservation and Technical Studies, where experts preserve masterworks for future generations and decipher the chemical makeup of paint and pottery glaze. As well as looking to the future, the pigments are a tinted window to the past, shedding light on the working methods and preferred materials of renowned artists. Studying them reveals the effort it took, in the days before synthetic pigments, to get colours just right.
We learn that green hues were entirely absent from cave paintings, and that popular sage-green wallpaper in the 19th century hastened many to their deaths, thanks to its reliance on arsenic-derived dyes. We come paper-close to Ultramarine, a vivid blue made from lapis lazuli mined in Afghanistan, which was once more precious than gold.
As well as providing a reference guide to art conservators, this is a document for sore eyes, a graphic glossary of the colours that inject vibrancy into our art and world. A Rothko quote sums it up, swimming in a scarlet page, ‘There is only one thing I fear in my life, my friend; One day the black will swallow the red.’