The Forbes Pigment Collection contains samples of material that represent all shades of the rainbow — plus brown, white, black, and metallic.
Nearly 100 years ago, Edward Waldo Forbes — art historian and former director of the Fogg Art Museum at Harvard University — launched into a worldwide hunt for color. From powders to plants, he assiduously acquired pigments and their source materials to establish an unparalleled collection of colourants. It is known today as the Forbes Pigment Collection, and it contains over 3,000 samples of material that represent all shades of the rainbow — plus brown, white, black, and metallic.
The entire library of bottles and vials resides in the University’s Straus Center for Conservation and Technical Studies, where they gleam in a modern displaythat opened in 2014. Although you can see them from a distance, the area is, unfortunately, off-limits to visitors aching to explore the shelves. A new book recently released by Atelier Éditions, however, provides an intimate tour of the collection that makes it more accessible than ever.
An Atlas of Rare & Familiar Colour features photographs of over 200 colorants, accompanied by texts that chronicle their backstories as well as the history of the collection. They are captured individually by Pascale Georgiev as if they were lab specimens, neatly centered against a plain white backdrop. Like biological specimens, they have been preserved in glass, coaxed into cork bottles, medical bottles, and test tubes. And, just as bits of tissue can help scientists identify plants and animals, these pigments were — and still are — used as reliable representatives to distinguish hues in the wild.