I See Dead People: Art From Beyond The Grave

Although we still have more than a month to go before Halloween, an interesting article in this month’s National Geographic raises the question of whether Eugène Delacroix‘s (arguable) masterpiece of 1830, “Liberty Leading the People”, was painted using a heaping helping of human remains. Up until the early 20th century, Ancient Egyptian mummies were exported to Europe and ground up for all sorts of purposes, especially for creating medicines and paints. In the latter category, the shade known as “Mummy Brown” was popular for many centuries. Although “Mummy Brown” is still an artist’s paint color today, it is assumed that mummy is no longer used in its production.

As ArtNet reports more thoroughly, Delacroix was just one of many artists who were known to employ mummy-based paint in their works. I particularly enjoyed a recounting of this by Rudyard Kipling concerning his uncle, the famous Pre-Raphaelite painter Edward Burne-Jones. Kipling wrote in his autobiography that he witnessed his uncle come running out of the house one day, horrified, and insisting that they inter his tube of “Brown Mummy” paint in the garden. This was because “he had discovered it was made of dead Pharaohs, and we must bury it accordingly.”

Truthfully, there are all sorts of dead things in much of the Ancient and Old Master art that we can still see today. The best purple, for example, came from the mucus of sea snails raised in Ancient Phoenicia. One of the most popular sources for red was made from ground up scale insects, i.e., parasitic creatures that live on trees. Fish were fermented and turned into glue, in order to help pigments adhere to the beautifully illuminated manuscripts of the Middle Ages; the pigments themselves were made from things like cuttlefish ink or ground-up animal bones. The powdered form of these materials were sometimes bound together using earwax or urine, while the pages were often made out of animal skins. However when it comes to what we might call the “ick” factor, “Mummy Brown” certainly takes the cake.

Over time, many of these biologically-based hues, such as “Mummy Brown”, faded more quickly than those derived from mineral sources. As a result, they have mostly fallen out of favor among artists working today. But the next time you are looking at a painting in a museum, take a moment to reflect on how that work of art came to be in the first place. It may well be that your long-vanished ancestors played a far greater part in its creation than you previously realized.

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