An Atlas of Rare & Familiar Colour

The Straus Center for Conservation and Technical Studies at the Harvard Art Museums owns more than 2500 of the world’s rarest pigments. Visually and anthropologically exploring the incredible collection, Atelier Éditions’ monograph “An Atlas of Rare & Familiar Colour” investigates the artefacts’ providence, composition, symbology and application.

Generally whenever we think about color, it really is the red, the blue, the green, the yellow, the orange as well as purple that many of us focus on. Besides black and white, these are the basic colors that make up the rainbow. However, nature is very abundant with loads of color varieties providing us a lot more possibilities than we often consider.

The Harvard Art Museums contain the world’s rarest pigments, from pieces of Egyptian blue glass dating to 1,000 BCE to recently introduced neon colors. Public access to the color collection has been minimal – until recently. In An Atlas of Rare & Familiar Colour, the collection of rare pigments is excavated by Atelier Éditions in stunning detail, through color-coded chapters.

The cabinets of the Forbes Pigment Collection are organized primarily by hue. The result of this “curious chromatic ordering” makes certain that the archive looks like “an installation exploring the very nature of painting”, as color historian Victoria Finlay writes in the foreword to An Atlas of Rare & Familiar Colour.

Harvard’s first color collector was Professor Edward Forbes, the director of the institution’s Fogg Art Museum. Forbes wished Harvard students to benefit from the same variety and quality of materials as their contemporaries in Europe had access to – and so made the decision to understand more about the making of different international pigments, their availability and price.

Forbes accumulated a great deal of what is stored at Harvard over a very extensive period through his journeys – the archive grew substantially in 1914 after he bought a selection of materials from Charles Roberson & Co. in London. He also acquired many samples as a result of gifts from donors who delivered pigments from Persia and Japan, in particular, while Tate Britain and companies such as EC Pigments, Sun Chemicals and Kremer Pigments also provided examples.

A lot of the colors are rare and a few are not likely to be made ever again. Finlay writes that Indian Yellow, for instance, originally came from the urine of cows which had been fed mango leaves, while Mummy Brown – as suggested by its name – actually was obtained from the mummified bodies of ancient Egyptians.

The current Forbes collection now tells stories of colors as old as charcoal, used in cave art, and as new as Vantablack. Published by Atelier Éditions, the Atlas features images by photographer Pascale Georgiev of a handful of the collection’s 2,500 rare pigments.