Many of the early Pre-Raphaelite paintings may have paint made from dead Egyptians.
Considered to be a highly variable pigment between raw umber (almost greenish brown) and burnt umber (a ruddier brown), Mummy Brown was a transparent brown good for mixing. And it was appalling. Made from ancient Egyptian human and feline mummies
grave-robbed investigated as antiquities in Europe, there was a craze to use the bodies for everything from fertilizer to beauty creams to fine art paint pigment.
Edward Burne-Jones was reportedly, appropriately disturbed when informed of the pigment’s true nature by fellow painter Alma-Tadema (and in the company of Burne-Jones’ nephew, a young Rudyard Kipling) that he performed a ceremony for his paint tube there in the yard, and buried it.¹
“…When assured that it was actually compounded of real mummy, he left us at once, hastened to the studio, and returning with the only tube he had, insisted on our giving it decent burial there and then. So a hole was bored in the green grass at our feet, and we all watched it put safely in, and the spot was marked by one of the girls planting a daisy root above it”
-from Philip McCouat, “The life and death of Mummy Brown“, Art in Society
The pigment itself wasn’t easily imitated. It wasn’t just made regular long-dried out corpses. The mummification process involved asphaltum or bitumen, often in place of the removed organs. Whole mummies were then ground for commercial and just plain wrong use.² Mummy Brown was a fugitive colour, meaning it faded easily. While it was easy for 19th century painters to give up using it due to ick, gross it was still manufactured long after. That practice didn’t end until the 1960s, when paint companies more or less ran out.
Today, you can get a wholly mineral imitation of Mummy Brown made from hematite, calcium carbonate, iron oxide, kaolin and clay silica; similar in colour, but likely with many different properties.
Note: I do not know if Burne-Jones painting Temperantia contains Mummy Brown; that could only be determined by mass spectrometry or historical notes. It is however, one of his earlier paintings so it is possible.
Did you enjoy this Pinch of Pigment? If you enjoyed it, let me know, and I’ll continue this as an irregular but frequent series on Symbiartic! All fine art paints are pigment particles bound in a sticky medium: vegetable oil, gum arabic or acrylic polymer. The stories behind the pigments are odd and surprising.
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