Fall 2012

Colors / Mummy Brown

An arm and a leg

Kris Lee

“Colors” is a column in which a writer responds to a specific color assigned by the editors of Cabinet.


Whether measured in handfuls of marine gastropods or bushels of parasitic bugs, countless organisms have been called upon over time to give up their bodies for Art. Sea snails whose purpling mucus dyed royal robes across the centuries from Phoenicia to Rome; tiny insects, gathered in antiquity around the Mediterranean and in Mesoamerica, whose carapaces were crushed to yield vivid carmine for the painter’s palette: such creatures were far from ready-at-hand, and the labor and expertise involved in gathering them and then processing their remains into dyestuff and pigment made them as valuable in their day as precious metals or jewels.

While the nineteenth-century explosion in synthetic colors made the sacrifice of such animals—or for that matter the collection of rare minerals or plants—less necessary, certain pigments remained stubbornly reliant on esoteric natural substances to trigger their particular aesthetic alchemy. At the turn of the nineteenth century, for example, London printmaker Rudolph Ackermann listed the various tints he sold out of his celebrated shop in the Strand—among familiar hues like azure blue and vermilion, his 1801 inventory also included exotica such as gamboge (produced from the resin of certain evergreens indigenous to Asia), Indian yellow (popularly believed to be made from the urine of cows fed mango leaves), and Egyptian brown, a light tawny used in painting, often as a transparent wash or glaze, as early as the sixteenth century.

Whether Ackermann’s choice of euphemism for this last and most peculiarly compounded of pigments indicated a developed sense of discretion is unclear—in any case, his circumspection was by no means shared by Messers O’Hara and Hoar, paintmakers based in London’s Lime Street, who a century later found themselves so stymied in their attempts to procure the main ingredient of Egyptian brown that they took to advertising in the newspaper for it: “We are badly in want of one at a suitable price. ... It may appear strange to you, but we require our mummy for making colour. Surely a 2,000-year-old mummy of an Egyptian monarch may be used for adorning a noble fresco in Westminster Hall or elsewhere without giving offence to the ghost of the departed gentleman or his descendants.” O’Hara and Hoar’s rather more blunt nod toward the vital constituent of Egyptian brown points at its other, more popular name—mummy brown—and its primary component: mummified ancient bodies, ground into powder and then mixed into oil paints, varnishes, or watercolors.

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