Simanaitis Says

On cars, old, new and future; science & technology; vintage airplanes, computer flight simulation of them; Sherlockiana; our English language; travel; and other stuff


THE FORBES COLLECTION in the Straus Center for Conservation and Technical Studies, Harvard University, is the focus of a fascinating article: “Treasures from the Color Archive,” by Simon Schama, online at, also titled “Blue As Can Be” in The New Yorker magazine, September 3, 2018.

Here are some gleaned tidbits; I encourage you to read the complete article as well.

A conservation coördinator working with pigments in the Forbes Collection. This and the following images by Jason Fulford for The New Yorker.

On Early Blues. As Simon Schama writes, the Forbes Collection contains some 2500 specimens of pigments “that document the history of our craving for color.” The oldest synthetic blues, for example, were devised in Egypt five millennia ago. These were likely derived from the rare mineral cuprorivaite and gave a soft medium blue that decorated royal tomb sculptures and wall paintings in temples.

I’m reminded of Christopher Moore’s Sacré Bleu, A Comedy d’Art, a dazzling novel that introduced me to The Colorman, a mysterious pigment peddler who was also something of a time traveler.

Sacre Bleu: A Comedy d’Art, by Christopher Moore, William Morrow, 2012.

Napoleon’s Death. Colormen over the ages have used toxic materials to produce their hues. Schama offers an example possibly explaining the death of Napoleon: “There is the copper-arsenite Scheele’s Green, synthesized at the beginning of the nineteenth century and more dazzling than traditional verdigris…. A later variant of Scheele’s, Paris Green, equally toxic and even brighter, was so cheap to produce that it coated Victorian wallpapers, children’s toys, and—despite early evidence of its toxicity—even confectionary. Following Napoleon’s death, in 1821, some Bonapartists put it about that the British had poisoned their hero by having him sleep in a green room, the paper releasing arsenic vapors in the damp sea air.”

The Anish Kapoor Caper. Schama cites the interplay of art, science—and cultural passion, this last feature worthy of The Colorman. The tale begins with the formulation of Vantablack, a pigment that absorbs 99.96 percent of light. No mean feat, this hyperblack has to be grown on surfaces of microscopic nanorods.

Schama writes, “In 2016, the sculptor Anish Kapoor saw the pigment’s potential for collapsing light, turning any surface into what appears to be a fathomless black hole, and he acquired exclusive rights to it. An outcry from artists, who objected to the copyright, prompted the Massachusetts manufacturer NanoLab to release Singularity Black, created as part of the company’s ongoing research….”

The outcry also encouraged artist Stuart Semple to make his World’s Pinkest Pink available “to any online buyer willing to declare himself ‘not Anish Kapoor.’ ”

Schama recounts, “But Kapoor obtained a sample of the pink pigment, and used it to coat his middle digit, which he photographed and posted online for Semple.”

Who says the arts are dull? ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2018

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