I'm acutely interested in at least a dozen aspects of color—color theory, the history of colors, color in language, essays on color, the social history of color—and have vague plans to write about it someday. One problem I will have is the fine and extensive library of works on color that precedes me. What new can I say? Well, we shall see.
In service of this interest, I read every article on color that I come across. Today I pored over a wonderful New Yorker piece from last year titled "Treasures from the Color Archive," by Simon Schama. He wrote about the bizarre pigment mummy brown:
Also on display are two tubes of Mummy Brown, made from the rendered gunk of the Egyptian dead, thought to be rich in the bituminous asphalt used in embalming and as protection against fungal decay. By the sixteenth century, Mummy was believed to cure illnesses as various as gastric pain and epileptic fits, and the flourishing trade in Mummy led to countless tombs being sacked and broken-up mummies sold to suppliers. Druggists and colormen—as preparers and venders of artists’ materials were known—often shared the same inventory and the same occult reputation for possessing exotic secrets. Bitumen, a cover-all term, was prized for its tawny glow, but the popularity of the pigment had much to do with the nineteenth-century taste for the Oriental macabre. History paintings of the kind fashionable in the eighteen-thirties and forties were gravy-brown, as if conferring period authenticity. There was cuttlefish sepia and burnt umber, but if Turner needed a loamy richness he reached for Mummy.
The pigment’s vogue was short-lived, however. At the middle of the nineteenth century, Laughton Osborn advised, in his “Handbook of Young Artists and Amateurs in Oil Painting,” “There is nothing to be gained by smearing our canvas with a part perhaps of the wife of Potiphar.” When the painter of historical scenes Lawrence Alma Tadema told the Pre-Raphaelite painter Edward Burne-Jones that he was going to see pieces of mummy before they were turned into pigment, Burne-Jones, according to his wife, Georgina, snorted that the name of the pigment was just a childish fancy. On being assured that the mummy was real enough, Burne-Jones insisted on giving his own tubes of paint a burial in the garden.
To me, the best part of that anecdote—besides Schama's use of "rendered gunk"—is the witty decency of Edward Burne-Jones.