Judging by the title, you might begin to wonder what kind of pigments could possibly be defined as rare? Let me introduce you to the Forbes Pigment Collection that is housed under the greater umbrella of the Harvard Art Museum.

 

The collection began in the early 20th century, started by Edward Waldo Forbes, director of the Fogg Art Museum from 1909 to 1944. Forbes’ fascination with painting’s colors and their binding medium fueled his desire to use science to understand and study great works of art. He is often cited as the father of the field of art conservation in the U.S.

By the 1920s, Forbes had amassed many containers of deep blues, rich purples, vibrant yellows, and myriad other colors from his travels to Europe and the Far East. Through the years, word of mouth helped the collection to grow as other art lovers and experts donated their own pigments. The museum’s collection, which is still continually being added to, now contains more than 2,500 samples. For years, the pigments have helped art experts to research and authenticate paintings. Samples from the collection have been sent to 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, etc.

So what are some of the rarest pigments? Conservation scientist Narayan Khandekar says his personal favorite is a big lump of Indian Yellow from as early as the 16th century, which was made from the urine of cows fed only on mango leaves. It was banned by the British government in the early 20th century on the grounds that its production constituted animal cruelty.

Among others is the rarest of them all — Mummy Brown. What is it made out of? It’s in the title! It’s a pigment produced by grinding up the flesh of Egyptian mummies, a practice that also appeared as early as the 16th century. The production continued until the 1960s when the supply of embalmed bodies finally petered out. While historical records confirm that artists purchased this paint, Khandekar says researchers have yet to find an artwork with the pigment present; however a life-size portrait of King Philip III of Spain by 17th-century court artist Pantoja de la Cruz lists Mummy Brown among his supplies. If accurate, this portrait will be the first to confirm the use of pigment.

Tyrian purple is another rare one. It was an ancient Phoenician dye that required 10,000 mollusks to produce a single gram of pigment and is said to have been discovered by Hercules’s dog as he snuffed along the beach.

The collection is still growing to this day as conservation students research newly manufactured pigments. Forbes’ pigments are a window to the past, shedding light on the working methods and preferred materials of renowned artists. But it still makes me wonder if there are even rarer pigments than what Khandekar is highlighting. Any guesses?

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