One of the most distinctive elements of Georgia O’Keeffe’s closely-cropped flower petals and sprawling Southwestern landscapes is her master color work. She layered and paired shades until they glowed.
Now Harvard Art Museums have acquired a selection of pigments used by O’Keeffe. Her hues find a home among materials such as John Singer Sargent’s paintbrushes and palette, as well as objects from Barnett Newman’s studio, at the university’s Forbes Pigment Collection.
Amongst the assortment of shades, the assemblage of O’Keeffe’s colors include burnt sienna, indigo and rose madder — all commonly-used pigments by the painter that may have been used to paint the organic archways in her "Red and Pink" (1925) and the spectrum of gold in "A Memory in Late Autumn" (1954) — both of which are part of the Harvard Art Museums’ collection.
Acquired in collaboration with New Mexico’s Georgia O’Keeffe Museum at a Sotheby’s auction this spring, the grouping includes 20 pigments from the artist, each affixed with a handwritten label, likely sometime in the 1920s. The joint stewardship of the O'Keeffe’s pigments between Harvard and the O’Keeffe Museum enables collaborative research between the two institutions for a more comprehensive look at the painter’s work.
“Artists care so much about their materials and to be able to see the materials the artists cared for gives us such strong insights into the thinking of an artist in their studio,” says Narayan Khandekar, a senior conservation scientist and director of Harvard’s Straus Center for Conservation and Technical Studies. “The O’Keeffe pigments are an exciting opportunity to look into the studio practice of this amazing American artist.”
Established by former Fogg Art Museum director and Straus Center founder Edward W. Forbes, the pigment collection was created to investigate the painting process before the brush touches the canvas and establish a scientific approach to art conservation in the United States. It’s now one of the world’s largest collections of historic hues that’s grown to over 2,700 samples since its inception nearly 100 years ago.
“A large part of the work we do is understanding the materials and techniques of artists in order to understand the process of creating a work of art,” says Khandekar. “The pigments are used as a set of comparative standards that allow us to identify the pigments used in a work of art. The pigments are also used for teaching to illustrate the different sources of pigments.” The collection of colors can also be shared amongst other institutions to aid in careful conservation work.
Although the full collection is not directly accessible for close-up visitor viewing, it can be seen across the Calderwood Courtyard through the glass wall that gives a glimpse into the Straus Center’s analytical lab space, with select thematic groupings on display in the Art Study Center on a rotating basis. For an up-close look at the collection, the Harvard Art Museums launched a digital exhibition called the “History of Color: An Audio Tour of the Forbes Pigment Collection.” It explores the rich narratives behind each hue and examines the role color plays in creating art.
The tour highlights 27 pigments, dyes and raw materials (with plans to add more), and is narrated by Khandekar and Alison Cariens, the Straus Center’s conservation coordinator. They dive into everything from pigments made from animals such as tyrian purple — which became so taxing on the murex mollusk from which it originates that it was reserved only for imperial garments — to synthetic pigments like Vermilion, which was popular in ancient makeup despite containing mercury. Viewer also learn the story of Khandekar’s favorite pigment — the Mughal-era Indian yellow, which garnered much controversy over the origin of its esoteric, yolky hue. (Spoiler alert: It’s not milk, but it came from a cow.)
“I like to think of them as artistic atoms, which are interesting on their own, but when you start combining them, you end up with molecules that have unexpected power,” says Khandekar of the pigments. “It's interesting to think that the same pigments are broadly available, but it's what and how the individual uses them that distinguishes one artist from another.”
Each segment of the digital tour displays an image of the pigment sample as the narrator details the color’s history and use — including photos of pieces from the museum’s collection that feature the pigment.
Khandekar hopes that the pigments included in the tour will prompt a newfound approach to admiring art, and appreciating the pigments as the building blocks of a masterpiece. “I think there is more than one way to appreciate a work of art, and if seeing pigments allows someone to appreciate a work of art in a way they did not before, than I feel like we have done our job.”