The Forbes Pigment Collection at Harvard Art Museums

A lesson in art history and authentication.

forbes pigment collection harvard art museums

Photograph by Toan Trinh

To understand the very essence of the red, white, and blue hues we’re celebrating this month, head to the fourth floor of Harvard Art Museums and bask in the spectrum of beauty that is the Forbes Pigment Collection. Founded in 1910 by former Fogg Art Museum director Edward Forbes as a reference set for authenticating the museum’s growing collection, this array of jars and test tubes features more than 2,500 pigments made of everything from cow urine to human mummies to 3,000-year-old bits of glass.

Having these raw materials helps when encountering artwork of questionable authenticity, as researchers can cross-reference granules of paint from a piece against Harvard’s collection. For example, for centuries ultramarine was made from ground-up lapis lazuli extracted from Afghan quarries, but Forbes’s collection features a more accessible, synthetic version (pictured here) that was discovered in 1826. If a curator were to bring in, say, a supposed 14th-century illuminated manuscript that boasted rich ultramarine coloring, it could be analyzed against the sample to see if it was real or fake.

It’s not just about preservation or investigating knockoffs, though. Studying the pigments in their purest form engenders a deep appreciation for the artistic process, says Narayan Khandekar, who oversees the collection as director of the Straus Center for Conservation and Technical Studies. “It’s a way of getting inside the artist’s head,” he says.

Where to See It: Harvard Art Museums