During the 16th century, a new, transparent paint pigment hit the market. Called Mummy Brown (Caput Mortuum or Egyptian Brown), the pigment quickly became a favorite amongst artists who used it for shadows and flesh tones. The source of the paint wasn’t a real concern. See, the pigment was made from ground up Egyptian mummies—human and feline. If unavailable, corpses of slaves and criminals were ground up.
Roberson & Co. of London made the pigment and sold it in tubes. White pitch and myrrh were combined with the ground up Egyptian mummies. Since the mummies were embalmed, they also contained trace elements of ammonia and fat. Scholars state that the color fell between burnt umber and raw umber on the color scale. Over time, however, the paint cracked and faded. Further, the ammonia and fat affected other pigments. This was a restoration nightmare. You know, in addition to the obvious.
The 19th century Pre Raphaelite artists favored it. Some who were to have purchased a tube included Sir William Beechly, Edward Burne-Jones, and Eugene Delacroix. Once word of the ingredients surfaced some artists discarded. Famed author and nephew of Burne-Jones, Rudyard Kipling retold the story of when Burnes-Jones found out about the ingredients. He supposedly ceremoniously buried his tube in his garden.
It is difficult to assess whether any of them actually used the paint. Experts believe Mummy Brown was used in L’Interieur d’une Cuisine, (Interior of a Kitchen, 1815) by Martin Drolling. Researchers speculate that Delacroix used Mummy Brown in La Liberté quidant le people (Liberty Leading the People, 1830) and Salone de la Paix at the Hotel de Ville (1854). As for Burne-Jones, researchers believe Temperantia (1872) and The Last Sleep of Arthur in Avalon (1881-1898) were painted with Mummy Brown.
Production ceased in the 1920-1930s with the last tubes selling in 1964. By that time, Roberson’s stated that interest in using the pigment had wain so much that one mummy could supply 20 years’ worth of tubes. The Egyptian mummy supply had dried up, as well.
There are better substitutes to Mummy Brown. For instance, Daniel Smith sells Bauxite Mummy.
If you’re interested in other historical paint colors and their origins, check out this amazing blog: http://www.veritablehokum.com/comic/mummy-brown-and-other-historical-colors/.
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