This month marks the beginning of The Conservation Center’s new “Pigment of the Month” series. Our report on Mummy Brown is the first of several articles that will detail the origins, history, and eventual discontinuation of pigments that are no longer in use.
Mummy Brown (Caput Mortuum) is a pigment favored by Pre-Raphaelite artists and it first appeared in the 16th and 17th centuries. This pigment is aptly named due to its organic origins: ancient Egyptian mummies. Yes, mummies. Mummy Brown was made by grinding down human or feline mummies and mixing them with a combination of white pitch and myrrh. The composition yielded a pigment that had a rich brown color that ranged between that of burnt umber and raw umber. Its transparent nature made it a good choice for glazes, shadows, flesh tones, and shading. However, the pigment had some functional drawbacks. It had a tendency to crack, and its quality proved extremely variable. In addition, since the mummy component brought ammonia and fat particles it was likely to affect with which it was used.
While the idea of using mummies for pigment seems quite outlandish today, it was not quite as frowned upon in the past. Despite legal restrictions, mummies were taken from Egypt and brought to Europe around the 16th century. They were believed to have health benefits and were primarily used for medicinal purposes through ingestion or topical application. Given this prevalent usage, it is unsurprising that the substance would be used for something as relatively benign as painting. The use of human and feline mummies in the making of the pigment occasionally caused a stir. Pre-Raphaelite artist Edward-Burne-Jones was said to have buried his supply of Mummy Brown in his yard after discovering it was made of actual mummies. However, despite its controversial origins, the pigment remained in use for quite a while, by the likes of well known artists such as Eugene Delacroix. One notable work that employed the pigment was Martin Drolling’s L’Interieur d’une cuisine (1815), pictured below.
Reportedly, the composition of the Mummy Brown in this particular painting strays from the original recipe by using the mummies of French kings exhumed from Saint Denis in Paris. The use of Mummy Brown generally decreased as the growing stress on the preservation mummies due to their historic and archeological significance increased. Additionally, a growing distaste for the misuse of mummified corpses made it a process to be frowned upon. The last traces of Mummy Brown usage can be identified in the 1930’s.