Artists used to grind up mummies to make brown paint

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Paint is made up of many different components, each performing a different function. There is the medium or binder, which modifies the properties of the paint by making it thicker or thinner or by extending its drying time. There is the solvent, which can be added to prevent the formation of lumps and globules. Last but not least, there are the pigments, which give the paint its opacity and, above all, its color.

Nowadays, most artists use synthetic pigments. These are mass produced and made from acids, petroleum or other chemicals. This is, however, only a recent development. For most of art history, artists have had to use biological pigments derived from minerals or clay.

Generally speaking, organic pigments are much more difficult to obtain than synthetic ones. A great example is the color blue, long coveted because it rarely appears in nature. Another example is tyrian purple, a textile dye once used to color the robes of Roman emperors. Its only source was the mucus secreted by species of Murex shellfish living off Tyre. For every 1.5 grams of dye, 12,000 shells had to be crushed.

Most art lovers don’t want to know more about pigments, which – like easels, brushes, or canvases – are just tools, and not as meaningful as the masterpieces they have. helped create. In reality, however, pigments have had a massive influence on the course of art history. The discovery of new pigments dictated how painters arranged their palettes, as did the eventual loss of other pigments. The color itself was also highly symbolic, often linked to its production process.

“It’s important not to overlook this material side of painting,” said Lola Sanchez-Jauregui, curator at the Harvard Art Museums in Cambridge. Hyperallergic in a article about the blue color called lapis lazuli. She added that “viewing these tools will help people approach the paintings from a new perspective.”

Lapis lazuli: a pigment made from precious stones

Lapis lazuli, also known as ultramarine, is a dark blue pigment obtained by grinding the eponymous gemstone into a soft powder. Human interest in stone dates back millennia. From 7570 BC. AD, members of the Indus Valley Civilization incorporated lapis lazuli into their bracelets and arrowheads.

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It didn’t take long before people started using lapis lazuli in painting as well. In 2006, the microscopic analysis of a Bronze Age wall painting from the Mycenaean city of Gla revealed that the pigment was mixed with red iron to create an equally deep purple. Lapis lazuli became particularly popular during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, when it was used to paint the robes of religious figures.

Limited supply and growing demand meant that, for a long time, the blue pigment was more valuable than gold. The vast majority of lapis lazuli has been mined in one place: the Kockha River Valley in Badakhshan Province, located in northeastern Afghanistan. To this day, the stone plays an important role in the local economy as well as politics, with illegal mining operations contributing to the rise of the Taliban in the late 1990s.

virgin mary lapis lazuli
The Virgin in prayer shows overseas to its full potential. (Credit: National Gallery / Wikipedia)

European painters prized the pigment for its color, which is stronger and deeper than any other shade of blue on the market. Its inclusion could make a mediocre painting good, and a good painting great. Many attribute the enduring success of Johannes Vermeer a girl with an earring to the titular pearl, but the girl’s lapis lazuli-colored turban, accented by the yellow of her dress, is just as spellbinding. The use of lapis lazuli also compares the unnamed guardian to the Virgin Mary.

Vermeer diluted his pigment so it wouldn’t dominate the portrait. The same cannot be said of the Italian artist Giovanni Battista Salvi da Sassoferrato, whose painting The Virgin in prayer shows lapis lazuli to its full potential. As Walter Benjamin argues in his essay “Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” ultramarine has a quality that must be experienced in person and cannot be adequately communicated through copies.

Grinding mummies to make brown

Mummy brown is a brown pigment that was made not by grinding gemstones but Egyptian mummies. The pigment became popular in the 16th century, when traders had built up a well-oiled network for smuggling mummies to Europe. Human mummies yielded the best pigment, although in their absence artists were also content with mummified cats buried alongside their Egyptian owners.

The pigment was popular with Renaissance painters as well as the Pre-Raphaelites, a reactionary movement that rejected the idealization of classical art in favor of a more naturalistic approach. Despite their differences, both groups enjoyed the brown mummy for the same reason: it was a highly transparent pigment which worked wonders when glazing canvases and painting shadows and skin tones.

In the 19th century, painters gradually lost interest in the brown mummy. This development was stimulated by two developments, one financial and the other cultural. According to British chemist and painter Arthur Church, an Egyptian mummy could produce 20 years of paint. Despite this, centuries of passionate painting had caused the number of mummies on the market to plummet, raising the price to the point that most painters could no longer afford the pigment. Moreover, the more artists learned about the origins of the Brown Mummy, the less willing they were to use it, as they considered the practice to destroy another country’s cultural heritage and profane an individual human life.

brunette mom
It is believed that Eugène Delacroix used the brown mummy in his Liberty Leading the People. (Credit: Louvre / Wikipedia)

For these reasons, painter Edward Burne-Jones, who had long used the pigment to cover his paintings with a warm, fantastical mist, reportedly buried his brown mummy tube in the yard, never using it again. Painters can still buy Mummy Brown from the store today, though it’s now synthetically made – and only mummy in name.

Another type of expensive paint

Some people paid for their pigments with their lives instead of money. Painting used to be a dangerous profession, as we now know that many paints contained toxic substances, such as heavy metals. Dutch painter Vincent van Gogh died by shooting himself in the chest with a revolver while painting in a field. His tragic suicide was prompted by a lifelong battle with mental illness which some historians believe may have been exacerbated by lead poisoninga condition whose symptoms – anemia, abdominal pain and seizures – the painter frequently exhibited.

Van Gogh’s mental illness may have been aggravated by lead poisoning contracted from his paintings. (Credit: Kroller-Muller Museum / Wikipedia)

Like other artists of his time, van Gogh used paint containing large amounts of lead, including lead carbonate and lead chromate. Unlike other artists of his time, van Gogh used this paint in extremely large quantities, slathering color on his canvas to create the vibrant images we know today. It is also believed that Van Gogh habitually licked his brushes, so he probably contracted lead poisoning at some point in his life.

You don’t have to be a painter to get sick from pigments. Simply being nearby is often enough to do the trick. According to historians, this could have been the case of the French conqueror Napoleon Bonaparte, who, while confined to the island of Saint Helena, used to take long hot baths in a room covered with the wallpaper. pigmented Scheele green.

Scheele’s green, as one might suspect, is no longer used today because it presents a health hazard. The pigment contains arsenic, which can be inhaled when the particles flake off. In addition, when exposed to moisture, for example inside a bathroom, it can promote the growth of a mold that produces toxic and carcinogenic arsine gas (which also contains arsenic). Napoleon died of stomach cancer and a toxicology report later revealed that his hair follicles contained high levels of arsenic. Perhaps one of the greatest military leaders in the world was shot by the wallpaper.

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