Sometimes we take for granite the incredible access to color we have. Every time we open a computer or our phone we can summon every Pantone number in existence, every shade in the Sherwin-Williams collection, and that color wheel where you just move the mouse around and get like a billion shades of red.
But what did people do before the internet?
Many turned to Edward Forbes, a historian and the director of the Fogg Art Museum at Harvard University from 1909 to 1944. Considered the father of art conservation in the United States, Forbes traveled around the world amassing pigments in order to authenticate classical Italian paintings. Over the years, the Forbes Pigment Collection–as his collection came to be known–grew to more than 2,500 different specimens, each with its own layered backstory on its origin, production, and use.
Today, the library is used mostly used for scientific analysis, comparing colors and materials to others. It was used in 2007 when a Jackson Pollock that was rediscovered was proved to be a fake by comparing one of the shades of red to their collection. The library proved it was an imposter since the color was made 20 years after Pollock’s death.
However it’s used, or whether it’s just a beautiful relic from a different time in art history, the Forbes Collection is an interesting look into how artists used to have to access colors. Some of the colors in the collection are sourced from far and bizarre places, like a black pigment from a single mountain in Afghanistan, or a brown from deep in the Amazon Rainforests.
We have it much easier today.