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Mummies in the Paint

When Napoleon Bonaparte ended his Egyptian campaign against the British, he brought scores of artifacts back to France. This started a sudden spike in European and American interest in everything Egyptian. Suddenly, historians and scholars began debating interpretations of ancient Egyptian art and architecture, obelisks began to appear in the center of European city squares, and, much later, a giant pyramid and an accompanying sphinx were built on the Las Vegas Strip. Among the more unsettling aspects of this Egyptomania were events known as ‘unwrapping parties’. In the United Kingdom, mummy expert Thomas Pettigrew became one of many scientists known for hosting such parties, where ancient mummies were unwrapped before an audience for their entertainment. Alexander Hamilton, the 10th Duke of Hamilton (no relation to the American politician Alexander Hamilton) became very interested in Egyptian mummies, and purchased several ancient sarcophagi. He even asked Pettigrew to mummify his body after his death and that he be interred in one of the sarcophagi that he had bought. This did end up happening, with one slight problem. The Duke was too tall to fit in the sarcophagus, so his feet had so be cut off to fit him in.


Besides just unwrapping, mummies were used for a multitude of purposes. It became common for mummies to be ground up and used as medicines, fuel for fire, and plaster for cracked walls. However, people later discovered another use:

Eugène Delacroix’s famous painting Liberty Leading the People hangs in the Louvre in Paris, painted in commemoration of the July Revolution in 1830, which replaced the absolute monarchy of the Bourbon kings with a constitutional monarchy under Louis Philippe, the Citizen King. Younger people will recognize the painting as the cover art of Coldplay’s Viva La Vida. But, as National Geographic’s Kritsin Romey said, “Liberty Leading the People may also have been literally painted with people.”


Pigments and dyes used in paints were formerly sold at apothecaries, where medicines were also kept and sold. Artists, being around ground up mummy at the apothecary shops, decided that mummy powder might make a good source for a shade of brown. So colorists began to make a new pigment for paint, not-so-originally dubbed ‘mummy brown’. Delacroix was known to have used mummy brown, so it is likely that the embalmed and ground remains of a millennia-old Egyptian are smeared across a canvas sitting in the largest museum in the world. Mummy brown was also a favorite of the painters of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, like Dante Gabriel Rossetti and John Everett Millais. Many colorist companies have stopped making mummy brown with actual mummies. But, some paint companies, like C Robertson & Company in London, had an excess of mummy parts after the use of embalmed Egyptians was considered controversial, and still had spare limbs lying about into the 1980s.

As of now, there is almost no way of telling whether or not genuine mummy brown paint is used in a particular painting. Scientists and curators can only speculate, and museum-goers can only guess as to which of their favorite pieces were created using crushed mummies.

About Nathan Scheer

Nathan Scheer is contributor to The Artoholic and a webmaster for TheArtExperts.org, who is currently studying History and International Studies at Elon University in North Carolina. He has also worked for Rehs Galleries, Inc. and Rehs Contemporary Galleries, Inc., which specialize in 19th and 20th Century European paintings and contemporary academic paintings, respectively, as well as Christie's Rockefeller Center.


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