An Atlas of Rare and Familiar Colour: The Harvard Art Museums’ Forbes Pigment Collection

An Atlas of Rare and Familiar Colour: The Harvard Art Museums’ Forbes Pigment Collection

An Atlas of Rare and Familiar Colour: The Harvard Art Museums’ Forbes Pigment Collection


Atelier Éditions recently published An Atlas of Rare and Familiar Colour. Behind the enigmatic title lie a myriad of antic glass bottles and mineral chunks, all part of the Harvard Art Museums’ Forbes Pigment Collection. The items inventoried in this unique reserve are reminders of the surprising history of pigments – the small particles of coloured material often mixed with a binder to make paint in the simplest form. “Cinnabar (Straus.576). A very poisonous substance. Occurring in many forms, the volcanic substance was sometimes highly fugitive, turning black when exposed to sunlight (and moonlight)”, reads a caption next to what would at first gaze appear as ordinary pebble.

Following a typological structure arranged by hue, the book offers a dive into remote geographies and times. Colours appear to be the result of context and culture and, as such, constantly evolving. Some of the pigments gathered in the collection are impossible to find anymore, either because they were made out of the crushing an extinct animal, because the mining of the mineral they are made of is too costly or, because the supply in raw material has vanished. And with good reason. Pigments come from a variety of sources, we learn. Some of them are mineral derived; others are made of leaves, roots, wood, seeds, insects, molluscs, bones, and even of mummy fragments and the urine of cows exclusively fed a diet of mango leaves.

Beyond the history of painting, acutely referenced throughout the book, pigments unfold history itself. We visualize Cro-Magnons mining ochre to depict their world on modern-day France’s cave walls, and follow the rise of Industrial Revolution that saw natural pigmentations rendered wholly obsolete by a succession of synthesised chemical compounds. As Victoria Finlay, a journalist and colour specialist, writes in introduction, this one-of-a-kind atlas takes our mind to “places where scientists invent and miners mine and artists work and have ideas and create illusions. […] And most of all to places where you can know the world more keenly, through a tiny pinch of its dust”.

Sometimes, history flirts with legends. Julius Caesar is said to have forbidden the attiring of any Roman citizen with Tyrian purple, excepting himself, after encountering Queen Cleopatra’s sumptuous Tyrian purple features whilst in Egypt; and green shades containing arsenic, by slowly melting from wallpapers, are accused of the death of many, among whom Napoleon Bonaparte himself.

While the text is the result of thorough research, the photography too appropriates the codes of investigation. Shot in a 1/3 proportion over a white backdrop, each vial is portrayed as an evidence. These glass containers of various shapes are simple, but yellowed labels and scripts handwritten in thick ink talk for their age and origins – many of them still resonate with the voice of 16th century colour-merchants selling their valuable products in Venice. With each photograph, we are tempted to re-enact the time of their discovery. And this, especially since each pigment is associated to a strictly formatted caption evocative of old science books, making this Atlas an anachronistic opus.

While photography itself is not the main purpose of the book, it’s worth noting that all the images were shot by Quebecois photographer Pascale Georgiev, whose practice focuses upon alternate visual narratives drawn from archival and analog materials. Flipping through the book indeed brought back to mind an exhibition that took place in 2010 at the Center for Photography in Geneva. Titled « The Revenge of the photographic archive », the show offered a reflection on how, confronted with the avalanche of photographs produced daily, more and more producers of images are becoming archivists-iconographers. Expanding the field of photography towards one that resonates closely with “visual culture”, it included photographs that primarily served as a practical tool – political militancy, anthropology, science and even insurance. Ultimately, it was bringing together photographs that, created for a subject, changed their object over the years, such as Georgiev’s still life shots of pigments whose anecdotal, illustrative, condition evolve over the pages, turning from an ordinary status into that of a work of art.

 – reviewed for Photomonitor by Laurence Cornet


An Atlas of Rare & Familiar Colour: The Harvard Art Museums’ Forbes Pigment Collection, with contributions by: Victoria Finlay, Pascale Georgiev, Narayan Khandekar, Capucine Labarthe, Kingston Trinder, was published by and is available from Atelier Editions.

Below, two page spreads: