Housed within the walls of the Harvard Art Museums — comprised of the Fogg Museum, Busch-Reisinger Museum, and Arthur M. Sackler Museum — are 2,500 of the world’s rarest pigments. An Atlas of Rare and Familiar Colour grants encyclopedic insight to the history of color that resides here — one vial at a time. The collection began at the turn of the 20th century, initiated with the aim of preserving some early Italian artworks that the former director of the Fogg Museum had begun collecting. Since then, the collection has expanded astronomically, and whilst still used by conservation purposes, today it is also a resource for identification and authentication of works and offers art historians an insight into early creative practices.
As a window to the past, the creation of color provides infinitesimal perspectives. From a single vial we can discover how artists worked, what their favored materials and methods were, and the process that was undertaken in order to create a single perfect color. Ultramarine, a deep and vivid blue, was a pigment made from lapis lazuli mined in Afghanistan: it was once more precious than gold. An early sage green sent many to an early grave. Whilst exploring the wider field of chromatics through a variety of theoretical frameworks, the monograph also illustrates the innovative nature of humans and the lengths which we will go to in order to illustrate our aesthetic and expressive compulsions.