9 Reasons Why You Shouldn’t Go To Boston Canvas Art On Your Own

Narayan Khandekar is aperture and closing chiffonier doors, affairs out best jars and pointing out ablaze powders, semi-precious stones, and added abstracts as he tells me about his admired artists’ pigments. Here is Tyrian purple, a colorant fabricated from mollusk secretions that was already so big-ticket akin ability struggled to allow it. Here are brownish flakes originally advised for car finishes, acclimated by 20th-century artists like Richard Hamilton to accomplish paintings shine—”which I anticipate is affectionate of amazing, actually”—and over there is a chicken bond colorant acclimated by Dutch painters such as Vermeer. He highlights a sample of advance tin yellow, a colorant that fell out of accepted use in the mid-1700s and wasn’t rediscovered until the 1940s. He picks up a best jar abounding with an orange powder. This accurate pigment, he says, is light-sensitive, “so it starts off this absolute ablaze orange, and afresh it reacts with ablaze and it darkens. So you generally see things that attending like they’re a browny-chocolatey color, but in actuality they ability acquire been orange to alpha with,” he explains.


We’re on the fourth attic of the Harvard Art Museums, axial a lab at the Straus Centermost for Attention and Abstruse Studies that looks out aloft a skylit atrium through ablaze glass. Abaft its cellophane walls, arresting to the accessible below, is an aggregation of art food arresting abundant to accord the paintings bench a run for their money: rows aloft rows of jars abounding with a alive bubble of every hue imaginable. This is the Forbes Colorant Collection.

Khandekar is administrator of the Straus Centermost and the babysitter of the colorant accumulating as able-bodied as its counterpart, the Gettens Accumulating of Bounden Media and Varnishes. A quick-to-smile man in annular spectacles, he has a affection for colors that extends to his alive clothes, which today accommodate a aristocratic dejected clothing that complements the blue-striped shirt and ablaze orange socks that blink out from beneath his pants. He’s the blazon of academic who can get you really, absolutely aflame about acutely accustomed substances. He will allocution at breadth about bounden materials, which in his appearance don’t get abundant love, lumped in as they are with the abundant flashier pigments. But as he credibility out, bounden mediums—the adhesive substances that authority pigments together—are basic to painting. They affect the arrangement of a acrylic and how abundant ablaze is reflected in the consistent color. In fact, whether they apprehend it or not, Khandekar says, best bodies call types of paintings by their binders: oil, tempera, watercolor, acrylic.

As he moves through the pigments, he puts bottomward the jar with the light-sensitive orange crumb he had been cogent me about and moves on to the abutting alembic that catches his eye—then pauses in the boilerplate of a sentence. “That jar that I best up was vermilion, so—I’ve aloof got to ablution my duke afore I do anything,” he says, already centermost above the room. Bittersweet is fabricated of arena mercury sulfide, a baneful actinic compound.

Peter Vanderwarker; © President and Fellows of Harvard College

For best of beastly history, artists couldn’t aloof run to an art accumulation abundance and buy a tube of paint. They had to accomplish their own, application delicate pigments alloyed with timberline adhesive or accession blazon of binder, like egg or oil, that would benumb the blush into a adhesive able of afraid to canvas or plaster. Together, the Forbes and Gettens collections are one of the best acclaimed athenaeum of art abstracts in America. They accommodate about 3000 samples from above the apple and throughout history, from ochres sourced from the charcoal of age-old Pompeii to Day-Glo paints acclimated in 20th-century Pop Art, alarming abstracts like vermilion, and aboriginal colors created alone a few years ago.

But those blatant powders in aged jars aren’t aloof aesthetically pleasing. They can acquaint us a lot about how art comes into being, and why the art we adulation looks like it does. They’re a window into history, both at Harvard and in the added world. And they’re a basic apparatus in attention art from the advance of time.


The colorant and adhesive collections got their alpha about a aeon afore Khandekar accustomed at Harvard. They were the abstraction of Edward Waldo Forbes, an affecting architecture administrator whose name the colorant bisected of the annal now bears. The son of Bell Telephone Aggregation co-founder William Hathaway Forbes and, on his mother’s side, the grandson of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Forbes is the acumen Khandekar’s job exists at all.

Born in 1873 on a clandestine island off the bank of Cape Cod, Forbes led a adequately archetypal activity for a affluent 19th-century heir. He abounding the aristocratic Milton Academy alfresco Boston afore entering Harvard, area he became an ardent apprentice of the arresting art historian and cultural academic Charles Eliot Norton. Not connected afterwards admission in 1895, Forbes, like abounding added adolescent men of his position, decamped to Europe, area he committed himself to belief art, with a accurate eye against the Italian Renaissance.

While alive in Rome, he became bent to accompany the best classical paintings and carve he could allow aback to the U.S. His accumulating began with what some ability accede a ambiguous banking choice: Madonna and Child with Saints Nicholas of Tolentino, Monica, Augustine, and John the Evangelist, purchased from a Roman barn in 1899. The 15th-century assignment was added than a little worse for wear, with acrylic that was baking and, in some places, missing. It was while administering the painting’s years-long restoration—he would eventually agency Italian, English, and American experts for the job over the advance of added than a decade—that Forbes became absorbed with the science of attention works of art from deterioration.

But Forbes never planned on befitting his art to himself. On the admonition of one of his Harvard accompany in Rome, he absitively to accommodation his growing accumulating to the anew accustomed art architecture at his alma mater—the Fogg Museum. Soon, Forbes would go on to do akin added for the museum. In 1909, he became its director.

Edward Waldo Forbes

Bachrach, Harvard Art Museums

Forbes was bent to aggrandize the Fogg’s collection, but he afraid about how artwork would book in the facility. Temperatures, moisture, and lighting assorted broadly amid genitalia of the architecture and throughout the seasons. The clamminess levels, in particular, were capricious and inconsistent, causing wood, paper, and canvas to aggrandize and contract, appropriation and arise the layers of acrylic aloft them. One of the aboriginal victims of the poor ambiance was the then-partially adequate Madonna and Child with Saints. It began to advance blisters in the acrylic about anon afterwards it accustomed at the Fogg; Forbes already declared some of them as actuality “almost as big as a soup plate.”

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Forbes anon accomplished that to acquire how to appropriately restore and assure works like his Madonna and Child with Saints, not to acknowledgment the blow of the art in the museum, he had to acquire their components. Over the abutting few years, he became bedeviled with the abstracts that went into art, including the pigments that created the colors. As Khandekar explains it, Forbes “wanted to acquire how these works were made, what they were fabricated of, what was original, what was a afterwards restoration, what was a forgery.”

Around the aforementioned time, Forbes additionally began teaching in Harvard’s accomplished arts department, area he brought his bite for abstruse assay into the classroom. “Just as a man who undertakes to apperceive about pond should be able to swim,” he said, art historians should apperceive how art is made. He asked his classes to carbon paintings application Old Masters’ abstracts and methods, and would buy heavily damaged work, adequate paintings, and sometimes akin forgeries in his adventure to present his attention acceptance with real-life abstruse problems. As allotment of this effort, he started accession examples of the raw abstracts acclimated by classical artists.

Some of Forbes’s colorant acquisitions in their aboriginal jars

Jenny Stenger © President and Fellows of Harvard College

His aboriginal accumulating was adherent to pigments acclimated by his admired Florentine painters of the 14th and 15th centuries. Forbes started by acquisition the ones declared in Cennino Cennini’s acclaimed 1437 adviser to painting, The Craftsman’s Handbook, affairs jars of approved pigments like azure blue, accepting chunks of raw colorant abstracts like azurite and malachite, and burying madder basis to accomplish the red colorant accepted as rose madder lake. Back one of his apprentice advisers began aggravating (and failing) to accomplish amber adorn like the one acclimated by Renaissance oil painters, Forbes started accession varnishes, too. By the 1930s, he was hunting bottomward resins, seeds, gums, and added capacity from all over the world, bringing them aback to Harvard for study. He catholic and corresponded consistently with art suppliers, gem merchants, the Administration of Agriculture, and anyone abroad who could advice him access examples of pigments and binders.

Alongside his collecting, Forbes aimed to about-face the Fogg Architecture into what he alleged a “laboratory for the accomplished arts,” an academy area accurate assay and assay could adviser attention as able-bodied as curation. And so he gave the sciences a abiding home at the museum, establishing the Administration of Attention and Abstruse Research—which became the Straus Centermost for Attention and Abstruse Studies in 1994—as the aboriginal attention administration in the U.S. To advice adviser this endeavor, he assassin chemist Rutherford John Gettens, the aboriginal scientist anytime alive by an American museum. Gettens analyzed the concrete and actinic backdrop of the abstracts Forbes collected, and accumulated his own backing of varnishes and bounden mediums.

Creating an absolute administration for attention meant that accession pigments became added than aloof a claimed hobby: It was now a axial allotment of the museum’s mission.


Unlike Forbes, Khandekar was absorbed in the science of art from the beginning. He started off belief amoebic allure at the University of Melbourne in his built-in Australia, and it was during academy break that he apparent his adulation of art, activity to the National Gallery of Australia to see the museum’s accumulating of Lichtenstein paintings while visiting his parents in Canberra. “I capital to acquire them in a way I could appreciate,” he says, “and that was through materials.”

His allure career began with belief abyssal sediment, which he says isn’t as altered from art abstracts as you ability think—they both absorb lipids and carbohydrates. “It sounds like a big jump,” he says, “but if you attending at it this way, you’re [just] allegory acrylic samples instead of sedimentary mud.”

In fact, some of the abstracts in the accumulating he oversees accomplish mud accept alluring in comparison. They accentuate aloof how unappealing the absoluteness of authoritative art can be, and aloof how abundant assignment history’s artists had cut out for them akin afore they bankrupt out their brushes.

Orange pigments, including the baneful orange vermillion

Peter Vanderwarker © President and Fellows of Harvard College

Until the appearance of avant-garde constructed pigments in the 18th century, painters had to await about alone on the colors the accustomed apple had to offer. That meant pigments frequently came from sources that today we ability accede appealing gross. Some were fabricated with mollusk secretions; others were fabricated with urine (both beastly and animal), blood, and feces. Bone atramentous was fabricated from broiled beastly bones. Kermes, a red dye acclimated by age-old Egyptians and medieval Europeans alike, was fabricated by crushing up absorber lice that lived on oak trees. And those are some of the tamer examples. In the 18th century, Turkish merchants awash one of the brightest reds around, dubbed “Turkey red,” which was fabricated in “a anfractuous process,” as columnist Kassia St Clair describes in The Secret Lives of Color, that complex bond the roots of madder plants with sulfonated brush oil, ox blood, and dung.

30 in. x 47 in

To get akin added stomach-churning, booty the archetype of “mummy brown.” To accomplish it, absolute mummies were dug up and alien to European apothecaries, who proceeded to bullwork them into powders for artists, as able-bodied as for medicines advised to cure all address of ills. Later, the blush was accessible in bartering acrylic tubes (which, afore collapsible metal tubes were invented in 1841, were fabricated of pig’s bladder). Acrylic manufacturers connected to accomplish casket amber up until the 1960s, when, as one aggregation told Time magazine, they ran out of mummies to accomplish it. Harvard currently holds two tubes of the stuff, as able-bodied as a few baby casket fragments—that is, anatomy parts—used in the accomplishment process.

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Samples of casket amber at the Straus Center

Harvard Art Museums; © President and Fellows of Harvard College

Other artist’s abstracts were treacherous, absolute alarming substances like arsenic, cadmium, and mercury. That meant artworks could affectation absolute absolute dangers to their creators, as some of the pigments in Harvard’s accumulating demonstrate. The browning characterization on an aged jar of realgar, a red colorant fabricated of an arsenic sulfide mineral, is covered with a red-bordered sticker that reads, in blooming handwriting, “Poison!” A agnate characterization appears on a corked jar abounding with the chicken colorant orpiment, a artlessly occurring mineral that’s about 60 percent arsenic by weight.

Painters were not blind of the dangers of their colors. At a time back an artist’s palette was bound to the shades of the accustomed world, it was a accommodation that some were accommodating to acquire in barter for the accuracy of the blush in question. Renaissance painters consistently acclimated orpiment admitting alive the risks it airish to their health—in age-old times, the colorant was akin acclimated as an assassination tool. (“This blush is absolutely poisonous,” Cennini cautioned. “Beware of abuse your aperture with it, lest you ache claimed injury.”) Nevertheless, it remained a accepted colorant until the 19th century, admitting artists acclimated it sparingly. For some, the adorableness artlessly outweighed the dangers.


For decades, the pigments and anchor at Harvard remained an aberrant ability for art conservators, but the boilerplate art lover wasn’t acquainted of their existence. Back Forbes retired from his position at the Fogg in 1944, the architecture absent its capital best for the attention program. The colorant accumulating and added bookish abstracts “fell victim to amiable neglect,” as Francesca Bewer, a assay babysitter at the Harvard Art Museums, writes in her book on the Fogg, A Laboratory for Art. The administration went afterwards a agents scientist for decades, and few new pigments were collected.

The colorant and adhesive collections additionally backward abundantly hidden from accessible appearance until alone a few years ago. But in 2014, Harvard accumulated the Fogg Architecture with two added university museums to actualize the Harvard Art Museums, renovating and accretion its facilities. In the process, the collections got a added arresting abode in the museum, abaft the bottle walls of the Straus Center’s lab amplitude on the fourth floor. And it was Khandekar’s job to amount out how to affectation the collections already they were reintroduced to the accessible view. “I spent about amid three and four months alignment all the pigments,” he says. In their accepted form, they’re accumbent like a blush wheel, the bottles fanned out with chicken in the center, dejected and amethyst bookending either side. Some of the raw abstracts acclimated to accomplish the pigments, like the dejected mineral azurite, sit on affectation underneath.

Still, Khandekar is added than aloof an arranger of bright artifacts. He is the modern-day beneficiary to the science-driven academy that Forbes and Gettens created.


Over the years, all art suffers from abrasion and tear, akin if it’s well-cared-for. Aloof like old books become amber and musty, paintings decay, their abstracts reacting with anniversary other, the light, the climate, and added factors. As a painting’s colors achromatize and change, it no best reflects the artist’s aboriginal vision. Avant-garde attention techniques can’t accumulate artworks arctic in time—nor is that what best conservators want—but they can afford ablaze on what paintings originally looked like, and what museums can do to accumulate them attractive like that for as connected as possible.

To booty one example, the colors in abounding of Van Gogh’s paintings acquire afflicted decidedly over the centuries. His bright-yellow sunflowers acquire angry brown, and his reds acquire achromatic to the point that you may not akin apprehend they were there in the aboriginal place. Admitting the walls in his painting The Bedroom were originally purple, the red colorant acclimated to mix the blush has all but disappeared, and alone the dejected colorant shines through. The artisan knew the paints he acclimated wouldn’t be abiding over time, but chose them for their action anyway. “Paintings achromatize like flowers,” he abundantly wrote to his brother Theo. He wasn’t kidding—the once-pink flowers in his still activity Roses acquire now angry about absolutely white.

Contemporary artists acquire to accord with crumbling paints, too. In 1962, Mark Rothko was commissioned to acrylic murals for a Harvard dining room. The murals were alone up for a little added than a decade afore ablaze spilling in through the room’s floor-to-ceiling windows acquired the acrylic to achromatize dramatically.

When the Harvard Art Museums capital to appearance the murals afresh in a 2014-2015 exhibition, they angry to colorant assay to advice amount out the best way of abating them. Application allure techniques such as X-ray fluorescence (which can assay whether a accurate colorant has a metal like chestnut in it) and Raman spectroscopy (which allows advisers to assay a pigment’s actinic agreement to an accustomed library of data), advisers ran tests on samples from Harvard and their own actinic pigments. They were able to define [PDF] the antecedent of the artist’s blood-soaked hues as the calcium alkali of Lithol Red, which happens to be awful acute to ablaze back it’s fabricated into a paint. Accession sodium-based red acclimated in the painting, by contrast, didn’t fade.

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Vincent van Gogh acclimated emerald blooming in his Self-Portrait Committed to Paul Gauguin.

© President and Fellows of Harvard College

As a aftereffect of that work, the Harvard advisers knew absolutely which blush was missing from the murals. Instead of abating the paintings with added accepted techniques, they projected a absolute arrangement of black ablaze analogous that red assimilate the canvas to acknowledgment it to the accuracy of Rothko’s aboriginal design. The agenda apology was angry off anniversary day back the museums closed, absolute the paintings’ accurate state.

The colorant accumulating has additionally been acclimated to accredit works of art and ascertain out forgeries. In 2002, a filmmaker alleged Alex Matter apparent 32 paintings in his mother’s accumulator locker on Connected Island. They were captivated in amber cardboard that was labelled with scribbled addendum anecdotic them as beginning works by Jackson Pollock, a abutting acquaintance of his parents. If that was true, Matter was sitting on a abundance accession of awfully admired paintings account millions of dollars. The art apple couldn’t appear to a accord on their legitimacy, however. Admitting the pieces were apparent in places such as Boston College’s McMullen Architecture of Art, some experts weren’t so abiding they were authentic, arguing that they ability alone be acutely accurate replicas of the painter’s style, not his aboriginal works. Aloft examination them, Ken Johnson of The Boston Globe wrote that “if they are not by the master, they are able imitations.”

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To put the agitation to rest, three of the paintings were beatific to Harvard for verification. In 2005 and 2006, advisers compared standards abstracts from the Forbes accumulating of pigments to samples of the three paintings. Back that didn’t about-face up any matches, they angry to London’s Tate, which had been accession pigments during the closing bisected of the 20th century, afterwards Harvard’s own accumulating had accomplished to expand. The British academy aggregate 250 pigments with the Straus Center, allowance the Harvard conservators ascertain that some of the orange, red, and amber pigments acclimated in the works weren’t commercially accessible until afterwards Pollock’s 1956 death. The paintings, in added words, were copycats.

In accession to analytic the mystery, the case was key to the change of the Straus Center. Realizing that avant-garde pigments would be basic to its connected research, Harvard committed allotment to accretion the Forbes accumulating already again.


These days, Khandekar—who became the Straus Center’s administrator in 2015—spends allotment of his time acquisition avant-garde pigments to add to the celebrated collection. He advance bottomward samples of new colors, like YInMn Blue, created in 2009 at Oregon Accompaniment University, and Vantablack, the world’s darkest counterfeit material—the rights to which are, controversially, captivated by a distinct artist, British sculptor Anish Kapoor. (Khandekar additionally added the world’s “pinkest pink” and a blush alleged Atramentous 2.0, both created by artisan Stuart Semple in acknowledgment to Kapoor’s cartel on Vantablack.)

It’s a big job, because pigments appear in and out of assembly all the time. “You acquire to absolutely be alive in befitting up to date with aggregate that’s available—it’s about absurd to do,” Khandekar says. He and his aggregation break in acquaintance not aloof with abreast colorant manufacturers, but bodies who charm celebrated pigments, too, like the British colorant able Keith Edwards, who has beatific the lab samples of pigments he synthesizes himself based on celebrated recipes. In 2016, Edwards gave Harvard a sample of his dejected verditer, frequently acclimated in 17th- and 18th-century watercolors.

Sometimes artists additionally bear pigments, like back the Turkish artisan Aslı Çavuşoğlu gave Harvard a sample of Armenian cochineal, a red sourced from the Turkish-Armenian border, during a appointment to Boston. Assembly of the colorant chock-full in the aboriginal 20th century, and according to Çavuşoğlu, the Armenian researcher she accustomed it from “is apparently the alone being who can still abstract this red based on the recipes from the 14th-century Armenian manuscripts.”

Shaunacy Ferro

The Forbes accumulating has afresh helped conservators assay the colors and abstracts of an age-old Roman bank fragment, attenuate Chinese pottery, a 17th-century account of Philip III of Spain, and illustrated Persian manuscripts from the 14th and 15th centuries—just to acknowledgment a few examples.

Yet the collection’s purpose goes above accurate analysis. It’s additionally a teaching apparatus for the accepted public, akin those who acquire no ambition of belief conservation. The accessible affectation of the colorant and adhesive collections offers a attenuate attending into the aesthetic process. “I don’t anticipate bodies anticipate [about] area pigments appear from,” Khandekar says. “People accept that blush is there and available, but they don’t anticipate of area it ability acquire appear from.”

As he afterwards puts it, “In the aforementioned way that you advise a kid that milk doesn’t appear [from] a carton, we’re teaching bodies that pigments don’t appear from Dick Blick, you know?”

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