Colours

How an Egyptian Craze created Mummy Brown

One of the most morbid paint colours that might of existed. A colour that came out of an interest in Egyptian culture.

Mummy Brown was a colour that was created from mummies. But many people didn’t know what was really in their paint that made it that brown colour. It came from people’s interest in Egyptian culture. The interest was started by Napolean in the 17th century. The colour became so taboo to use that many regulations of how to treat the dead and dead remains in a commercial market were created.

How the Egyptian Craze in Europe happened

During the reign of Napolean in the 17th century, he went on an inquest to seize into Egypt. It was a French campaign to the Ottoman territories of Egypt and Syria to protect French trade interests and to weaken the British access to India. It was originally called the Mediterranean campaign of 1778 that included the capture of Malta, the arrival of Alexandria and the Battle of the Nile.

After the battle of the Nile, Napolean went through many tombs and crypts of Egyptian people with his French army, the scientists and scholars to document his findings. He brought back many artifacts from their tombs. This was the beginning of the two-century craze of Egyptomania – the fascination of everything related to Egypt. Napoleon wrote about the expedition in his report, Description de l’Égypte in 1809–1828. The paper described in detail to Parisiens and the rest of France large amounts of details about Egypt that was new to them and was for the first time available to to the every man. Even though other nations have been to Egypt, like the Romans in the 3rd century, this sparked a renewed contentienal interest.

His quest in Egypt led to the discovery of the Rosetta Stone. Several books and papers of their findings were written. He even brought back a severed skull from one of the mummy’s he found for his wife Josephine. She didn’t like it.

After Napolean came back from the Egypt exploration trip to France, many scholars found his findings so interesting that the rich and wealthy went to Egypt to find anything unique from the pyramids for their collection. A lot of ancient Egyptian artifacts were made from gold and other rare metals that many showed off in their homes not knowing the context of those belongings.

Image of Bottle of Mummia
Apothecary vessel of the 18th century with inscription MUMIA. Source: Wikipedia

The rich Europeans held Mummy unwrapping parties to unravel the mummies and gawk at their dead bodies. Many pharaoh tombs were disturbed for the entertainment of the rich in the Victorian period. People who went to Egypt brought back entire mummies back home for display and unwrapping parties. It was a mixture of humans and felines used as entertainment and other miscellaneous things like miscellaneous fuel, fertilizer for crops and art supplies.

In Europe, when they used mummy artifacts they called it Mummia. It was used in weird ways from medicine to paint. Mummia was mummified bodies grounded up into a powder and sold to the masses for consumption or whatever they needed it to be. It was marketed has a cure for headaches, epilepsy or ulcers. It was ingested with food and drinks or applied on the skin.

The creation of Mummy Brown

Many started to have a passion for the shade of brown that many artists wanted to use it in their paintings. Mummy Brown was a paint that was created by combining grounded up remains of real Egyptian mummies (Mummia), some oils, spices and plant extracts.

The mummified bodies used various spices, beeswax, resins, asphalt and sawdust to preserve and protect the bodies for the afterlife. There was a compound that was consisted of being like petroleum oil. This was called bitumen. It was a thick, oily black substance of petroleum that oozed from the cracks in the ground. This was the substance that gave the mummies that distinctive brown.

Painting_Examination OF A Mummy-Paul Dominque Phillippoteaux
Examination of a Mummy – A priestess of Ammon, Paul Dominique Philippoteaux c 1891. Credit: Peter Nahum at The Leicester Gallery, London
A Painting of Martin Drolling's Interior of a Kitchen (1815)
A Painting of Martin Drolling’s Interior of a Kitchen (1815)
Painting of Edward Burne-Jones, The Last Sleep of Arthur
Painting of Edward Burne-Jones’ The last sleep of Arthur, c. 1881–1898. Source: Wikipedia

The brown had a rich transparent shade that was somewhat between the greenish-brown raw umber and reddish tones of burnt umber. Many paintings from the pre-Raphealite era might have used this pigment. It was easy to handle and mixed well but faded easily. It was also called Egyptian brown and Caput motum (Dead Man’s Head in French.)

HEX code Mummy Brown #8F4B28
HEX code of Mummy Brown #8F4B28

When the Craze Died Down

In the late 1800s, many people found the exploitation of the dead being distasteful. Many found that having these unravelling parties were hurting their chances of understanding what was going on in Egyptian society many centuries ago. When people started to find out what was happening to the mummies from those tombs, being ground up and used from materialistic things, it fell out of fashion with the public. Not a lot of people wanted to paint with the remains of dead bodies.

Edward Burne-Jones held a burial in his garden of the tubes of Mummy Brown paint after reading about what it was in the newspaper in 1881. He said it was righting a wrong by using the paint. In a quote his wife said when he learned about the origins of the brown:

“Edward scouted [scornfully rejected] 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.” – Georgina Burnes-Jones said after her husband discovered his paint were human remains.

The paints were still sold until the 1960s because they most likely ran out of supply. It’s still pretty impossible to determine who used mummy brown in their paintings. The amount of mummy that would be tested for the mammalian origin likely present in very small quantities. Many paint tubes that now say Mummy Brown is most likely referring to the colour shade only not the actual ingredient of mummy inside.

Banner credit: Cropped photo – Interior of a Kitchen, Martin Drowling (c. 1815)
Resources:
Ground Up Mummies Were Once an Ingredient in Paint – Smithsonian.com
Was This Masterpiece Painted With Ground Mummy? – National Geographic
Painting with the dead: The use of human remains in paintings – Strange Remains
Pinch of Pigment: Mummy Brown – Symbiartic
Encyclopædia Britannica – Egyptomania: Sphinxes, Obelisks, and Scarabs