Painters have always been searching for the perfect colors to use in their works. While modern pigments are made in labs with industrial chemicals in the past colors had to be sourced from nature or made out of basic chemicals. The ash from lamps known as lamp black was used and rust to create oranges and reds. Paint makers would go to any length to find just the right colors for their clients. So just as the name suggests mummy brown was a deep reddish brown pigment made up of the actual ground remains of the nobility of ancient Egypt.

Before mummies ended up on canvasses they were used for an even more macabre purpose. During the late 15th and the 16th century medicine was still in its infancy and a nasty practice of using the remains of mummies became a typical ingredient in many medicines. It was thought that the mummy powder was useful for treating excessive bleeding. By the 18th century mummies were starting to no longer be seen as medicine but that created the new issue of what to do with all these mummies laying around. With Egypt now being ruled by France there was a huge supply. The rich of the time would often own parts of mummies as conversation pieces and ground mummy found uses in all sorts of products from fertilizer to creating paint.

Mummy powder

Mummy brown (also known as Egyptian brown) played a role in many famous paintings. L’interieur d’une cuisine by Martin Drolling is known for its use of the color. Other paintings include Salon de la Paix by Delcroix. Delcroix is known for painting the very famous Liberty Leading the People a work that details the French revolution which now hangs in the Louvre. It is speculated that the brown may have found its way in that painting as well. In his early works Edward Burns Jones was known to have used it.

L’interieur d’une cuisine by Martin Drolling

Liberty Leading the People by Delcroix

Slowly the use of mummies in paint fell out. It was noticed that paints made with it often cracked and that it was difficult to mix with other pigments. Also it became more known that mummy brown was actually made out of mummies and even in the kooky 19th century artist’s still weren’t up for smearing the dead all over their masterpieces. It’s said that when Edward Burns Jones found out how the color was made in disgust he gave his tube of the brown a proper burial. Despite its use falling out of fashion paint stores continued to stock mummy brown all the way until 1964 when due to the ban on selling mummies they simply ran out of mummy parts to use.

If anything the prolific use of this color in the 18th and early 19th century is a testament to the extent we will go to just to capture the perfect image. It’s possible that in almost any collection of European art from that era is the remains of some great ancient Egyptian leader. So the next time you’re at an art museum remember to thank these pharos whose final resting place is made of fabric rather than stone.

The life and death of Mummy Brown:
Was This Masterpiece Painted With Ground Mummy?:
Strange History of Mummy Brown | LittleArtTalks: