The above image of the painting, Interior of a Kitchen by Martin Drolling has made extensive use of the color, Mummy Brown, a pigment which was made from the ground-up remains of both human and feline Egyptian mummies. Around 1915, one London colourman made the claim that he could produce enough Mummy Brown paint to meet customer demands for 20 years from just one mummy alone. It fell from popularity in the 19th century when its origins became more well known to artists. Edward Burnes-Jones’s (a British artist in this time) wife was quoted as saying:
“Edward scouted the idea of the pigment having anything to do with a mummy — said the name must be only borrowed to describe a particular shade of brown — but when assured that it was actually compounded of real mummy, he left us at once, hastened to the studio, and returning with the only tube he had, insisted on our giving it decent burial there and then. So a hole was bored in the green grass at our feet, and we all watched it put safely in, and the spot was marked by one of the girls planting a daisy root above it.”
Later in the 20th century, when the supply of available mummies was finally exhausted, the managing director of a Mummy Brown manufacturer was quoted as saying, “We might have a few odd limbs lying around somewhere…but not enough to make any more paint. We sold our last complete mummy some years ago for, I think, £3. Perhaps we shouldn’t have. We certainly can’t get any more.”
Lead-based white was one of the only white pigments available to artists until the twentieth century. Since then, safety regulations have made it more difficult to find and purchase, but it is still used today by some artists who prefer the unique handling of the paint. Van Gogh himself suffered from some of the key symptoms of lead poisoning (abdominal pain, anemia, stomatitis, signs of radial neuropathy, etc.) due to the careless, messy way he handled his pigments.
3. Paris Green (or “Emerald Green”)
The green crystalline powder, from which the pigment Paris Green is made, has also been used as both an insecticide and a rodenticide because of it’s high toxicity. It was a popular pigment used among such painters as Monet and Van Gogh.
4. Boiled Insects
Carmine is a deep red/purple color, similar to blood. The natural dye carmine is produced by boiling a dried insect, cochineal, and extracting its carminic acid then mixing it with aluminum or calcium salts to make carmine dye. Though popular in the middle ages, carmine has since been largely abandoned in art, almost completely disappearing in the 20th century due to it not being able to compete with the newly discovered artificial dyes of 19th century Europe. It has since made a comeback becoming valuable again after many of the commercial synthetic red dyes were found to be carcinogenic. Today, it’s mainly found as a colorant in food and lipstick.
Realgar is a toxic, ruby-red colored pigment. It is a known carcinogen and an arsenic poison. It was used to poison rats in medieval Spain and in 16th century England and is still sometimes used today to kill weeds, insects, and rodents. Early occurrences of realgar as a red painting pigment are known for works of art from China, India, Central Asia, and Egypt. It was used in European fine-art painting during the Renaissance era, a use which died out by the 18th century.
Scheele’s Green is another pigment with arsenic in it. Napoleon Bonaparte stayed in a room painted his favorite color during his exile in St. Helena- bright green. Arsenic exposure has been linked to an increased risk of stomach cancer, which is what Napoleon is generally believed to have died from.
6. Sea Snails
To produce the pigment, Tyrian Purple, a certain kind of predatory sea snail were believed to have been collected in large vats and left to decompose. This naturally produced a really horrible smell, so bad that the Talmud (a body of Jewish ceremonial law) even granted women the right to divorce any man who became a dyer after marriage. Not much else is known about the subsequent steps that were taken to produce this dye in ancient times.
7. Cow Urine
The pigment, Indian Yellow, is claimed to have been originally produced in rural India by feeding cows nothing but mango leaves and water and then collecting and drying their urine. This would produce foul-smelling balls of the raw pigment. Eventually, the process was outlawed in 1908 for being inhumane. The cows were not well-nourished and the leaves contained the toxin, urushiol, which is found in poison ivy as well.