Color Stories | Pigment Collection of Unknown Origin

The most amazing Mothers Day gift ever, was given to me by my parents yesterday.  I had been coveting this collection of pigments she had purchased at a local garage sale years ago. I would sneak to take a peek of it almost every time I would visit my folks – drooling over the vibrant colors, the blown glass bottles and the beautifully hand calligraphed labels. To my utter surprise and elation ,they presented this to me yesterday and it will certainly be cherished as part of my color archive for the rest of my days.


What I know about these : Bottles 2-6 are missing. My mom took them to a local historian to see if she could find out any other information about them, but all they were able to devise was that they are most likely aged around the Pre-Civil War ear, as there are a few colors in the set that have not been produced since then.

In addition to doing further research on my own,  plan on sending some images of these, the case and what limited knowledge I have of them to the Forbes Pigment Collection at Harvard University to see if they may have more information about where they may have come from and their approximate age. They will remain forever in my safe keeping 🙂

The colors that are present in this collection include:

No. 1 – Aluminum

No. 7 – American Vermilion

No. 8 – Turkey Deep Red

No. 9 – Pyrogen Vermilion

No. 10 – Permanent Red

No. 11 – Transparent Rose Magenta

No. 12 – Thompson Fresco Violet

No. 13 – French Zinc White

No. 14 – Alpine Blue

No. 15 – Celestial Blue

No. 16 – Cobalt Blue

No. 17 – Ultra Marine Blue

No. 18 – Mauve Dry Color

No.19 – Chrome Yellow Light

No. 20 – Chrome Yellow Medium

No. 21 – Chrome Yellow Deep

No. 22 – Orange Mineral

No. 23 – Venetian Red

No. 24 – Rose Pink Magenta

No. 25 – Ivy Green

No. 26 – Swiss Leaf Green

No. 27 – Olive or Forest Green

No. 28 – Paris Green

No. 29 – Amalakite(sp) Green

No. 30 – Chrome Deep Green

No. 31 – Dutch Pink

No. 32 – Raw Sienna

No. 33 – Burnt Sienna

No. 34 – Raw Umber

No. 35 – Burnt Umber

No. 36 – Ivory black

UPDATE (05.12.2020)

Der Sarah,

Thank you for your email and the photos of your pigments. Firstly I want to say that I can’t give you as full an answer as I would like as we are working remotely and all my books are in my office, and the library is off limits at the moment.

The labels are interesting in that they are characteristic of early 20th century labels and similar to many of the ones we have in our own pigment collection from the 1920s-30s and these were widely available stationary items. The writing looks like it has been done with a nib and ink where the nib writes more widely in one direction than the other, something like a stub or italic nib, which is not unusual, it is this kind of nib that gives older fountain pens/dip pens their “character”. It is interesting to see Nu on the labels as an abbreviation of Number rather than No. I am not sure what that means but its worth keeping in your back pocket.

The jars don’t look like the manufacturer supplied containers. Many artists would buy large amounts of pigment in paper packets and decant smaller amounts into jars they would take into the studio or into the field. Two sets of jars like this belonging to Georgia O’Keeffe were sold by Sotheby’s just recently, and my conversations with the O’Keeffe museum suggest 1920s as the date for these pigments.

So it makes me think that the place in Waterford, NY may have been the home of an artists or a relative of an artist.

Regarding the date, Its hard to say exactly, but is we look at some of the pigments we find Magenta and Mauve were both discovered just prior to the Civil war (Magenta: 1859 Mauve: 1856), which support the local historian’s perspective. However there are other pigments which point to late 19th century/early 20th century as the earliest date. Permanent red can be aniline red (1907), lithol red (1899), pigment red 60 (1902). One jar in particular pushes the dated into the 20th century. A commercial process for producing aluminium was not available until 1889, and it was not available as a foil until 1910 (necessary to produce the powder). Aluminium as a powder was not available until the 1920s (it was used as a pigment on a lot of aircraft between the wars). The 1920s is consistent the date suggested by the labels.

It looks to me like you have a set of pigments that come from the 1920s. They are a lovely set. Some of the names are unusual (Amalakite Green) and may give you a clue as to the manufacturer.

Regarding a visit to the pigment collection, that is possible in the future, but how far ahead I cannot say. At the moment, we are working remotely, and we are working on possible scenarios for reopening but it could be some time. Please do stay in touch and we can plan a visit when it becomes possible.

I hope that some of this information is helpful to your understanding of your pigments. You may also find: a useful resource.

If you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to write.




Narayan Khandekar

Director, Straus Center for Conservation and Technical Studies

Director, Center for the Technical Study of Modern Art