Painting with the dead: The use of human remains in paintings

Interior of a kitchen by Martin Drölling, Louvre, 1815.  Image credit: Wikipedia

Interior of a kitchen by Martin Drölling, Louvre, 1815. Image credit: Wikipedia

L’intérieur d’une cuisine (or “Interior of a Kitchen”) by French artist Martin Drölling was completed in 1815 and exhibited at the Paris Salon Exhibition of 1817.   This painting achieved such critical acclaim that it hung at the Palais du Luxembourg long after Drölling’s death in 1817 and know hangs in the Louvre. This scene of domestic tranquility, however, hides a macabre secret- Drölling used a shade of paint called Mummy Brown.

Mummy Brown was a paint that was a deep brown that ranged in hue from burnt to raw umber. European artists and colour-makers (manufacturers of pigments) from the 16th to the 20th century mixed this pigment using white pitch, myrrh, and the ground up remains of Egyptian mummies and their mummified pets. Though art historians believe Drölling used the remains of French kings disinterred from the royal abbey of St. Denis in Paris, rather than ancient Egyptian remains.

Why did artists start using this macabre pigment in their paintings?

Archaeologists believe the use of human remains in paint was the result of a misidentification of embalming substances used by ancient Egyptians.

The word “mummy” is derived from the Persian and Arabic words “mum” or “mumya” that describes wax or bitumen.   Bitumen is a petroleum-based goo that was found in the Mumya Mountain of Persia and has been used as an adhesive and sealant since ancient times. When Arabic people first encountered mummies they assumed that the black gunk that covered the corpses and bandages was bitumen so they called them “mumya” or “mummy.” Though bitumen was used during the embalming process for a period of time on the Red Sea coast, oils and resins were more commonly applied to ancient Egyptian corpses. As the oils and resins aged they blackened causing the confusion that eventually led to the destruction of countless mummies over hundreds of years.

Throughout the medieval and Renaissance periods artists used bitumen as a pigment in color recipes to make paint. Because Europeans had been importing Egyptian mummies since the 16th century for medicinal purposes, artists believed they had a readily available source for bituminous pigments on mummies when bitumen became scarce. Mummified remains became so widely used by artists that art supply stores and colour-makers mass-produced the pigment and paint and it soon became known as Mummy Brown.

Mummy Brown eventually grew to be unpopular at the end of the 19th century because the technical qualities of the paint were considered to be subpar, authentic mummies became more difficult to obtain, and most importantly people began to realize that making and using Mummy Brown exploited the dead and another culture’s archaeological riches.

C Roberson and Co, a colour-maker and manufacturer of art supplies based in London, stopped selling the Mummy Brown some time in the 1960’s but only because they ran out of the pigment’s main ingredient. In 1964, C Roberson and Co’s managing director at the time told Time Magazine, “We might have a few odd limbs lying around somewhere, but not enough to make anymore paint.”

Today there are synthetic versions of Mummy Brown available, called mummy bauxite and caput mortuum.

References:

Nova (Interviewer) & Salima Ikram (Interviewee). (2006). The Afterlife in Ancient Egypt [Interview transcript]. Retrieved from PBS NOVA http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/ancient/afterlife-ancient-egypt.html

McCouat, P. (2013). The life and death of Mummy Brown. Journal of Art in Society. Retrieved on http://www.artinsociety.com/the-life-and-death-of-mummy-brown.html

Perny, M. (Retrieved on 2014, December 29). L’intérieur d’une cuisine. Retrieved from: http://www.louvre.fr/en/oeuvre-notices/interior-kitchen

Torres, RL. (2013, October 31). A pigment from the depths. Retrieved from: http://magazine.harvardartmuseums.org/article/2013/10/31/pigment-depths-0



Categories: History

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4 replies

  1. I wonder how those paintings produced with human remains managed to age themselves. One would assume that with much older bodies, such as the Ancient Egyptian, the breakdown of the pigment would have plateaued?

  2. Now that’s some interesting painting you don’t see every day now do you? =) Really interesting post thanks for sharing it, you have a new internet fan!

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