A Short History of a Pigment Collection (and Art Conservation in the United States)

By R. Leopoldina Torres
October 2, 2013
Index Magazine

A Short History of a Pigment Collection (and Art Conservation in the United States)

Close-up of pigments from the Forbes Pigment Collection. Photo: Mark Mahaney.

Ranging from rare bits of Egyptian blue glass dating to 1,000 BCE to newly released fluorescent hues, the pigment collection at the Harvard Art Museums’ Straus Center for Conservation and Technical Studies comprises over 2,500 samples. 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. Behind the story of Forbes’ pigment collecting lies the larger story of the emergence of art conservation in the United States.

It all started with his purchase of a 14th-century Tuscan Madonna and Child with Saints, which he bought during an 1899 trip to Italy. As he acquired more early Italian paintings, Forbes noticed that they would very rapidly begin to deteriorate. Research Curator Francesca Bewer, author of A Laboratory for Art: Harvard’s Fogg Museum and the Emergence of Conservation in America, 1900–1950, remarks that Forbes wanted, “to explore how these paintings were made and what could be contributing to their disintegration. However, he was also fascinated with how painters worked. That passion led to his collection of materials related to the making and restoration of art . . . [so that he could] study and recreate techniques and methods used by the masters.”

By the end of the 1920s, Forbes was seeking pigments from around the world to add to his collection. In 1927 the new Fogg Museum building at 32 Quincy Street gave him the chance to create the in-house Department of Research and Restoration. He hired chemist Rutherford John Gettens as the museum’s first staff scientist to help analyze pigments, both to learn about their histories and develop better methods of analysis for chemical components of works of art. George Stout joined the Fogg in 1928 as a graduate assistant. That same year Forbes founded the Center for Conservation and Technical Studiesthe oldest fine arts conservation treatment, research, and training facility in the United States. 

Using Forbes’ collection of over 1,000 pigments, Gettens and Stout constructed an extensive catalogue to identify pigments and other artist materials, such as binding media. In 1942 they published a pioneering research work: Painting Materials: A Short Encyclopaedia. Bewer calls this “a unique and invaluable resource for restorers. Nothing like it would be published again until the 1960s, and even now it remains a standard reference work for conservation around the world.”

Some prominent art materials in the collection include rare nuggets of artist pigments discovered in the excavation of Pompeii; pigments characteristically used in early Japanese oil paintings, as well as contents of John Singer Sargent’s studio.

After World War II, pigment collecting slowed and eventually stopped. Only in the past few years have scientists at the Straus Center begun to expand the collection once more. Senior Conservation Scientist Narayan Khandekar explains that the Straus staff “decided to start the active collection of pigments again so that we can have more reference materials of modern synthetic and organic pigments that have come onto the market over the past 70 years.”

These materials have also been used in authenticating and restoring paintings. For example, in 2007, the collection was used as a reference for a highly publicized analysis of three disputed Jackson Pollock paintings. The team at the museums found that some of the pigments in the paintings were not created until the early 1980s—but Pollock had died in 1956.

Samples from the Forbes Pigment Collection and the Gettens Collection of Binding Media and Varnishes have been distributed and lent to museums and research facilities around the world, among them the J. Paul Getty Museum, the Library of Congress, the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco, and the National Research Laboratory for Conservation of New Delhi, India. As Khandekar notes, “Most of our pigments have been analyzed using different kinds of instrumentation, and the data has been added to a variety of public databases. The pigments are also made publicly available for researchers throughout the globe, provided they share their research with us in return.”

Through such exchanges, the Straus Center continues to build knowledge of pigments and color production. An electronic directory of these art materials, using data from Painting Materials: A Short Encyclopaedia and the Straus Center’s reference collections, is available through the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston’s Conservation & Art Materials Encyclopedia Online (CAMEO) database.

Samples from the pigment collection along with historic pieces of scientific equipment and artist materials will be exhibited in the new Straus Center when the Harvard Art Museums reopen in 2014. Located on the fourth level, the display will be visible through glass walls on the upper levels of the courtyard. By displaying the collection, the new museums will showcase its long history as a pioneer in new methods and technology for the field of conservation.


R. Leopoldina Torres is a former Communications Intern (summer 2013) and is pursuing an MLA degree in the Museum Studies Graduate Program at the Harvard Extension School.