Walking through the North Carolina Museum of Art, one can imagine the master painters who created these works of art toiling in their studios—jars and brushes innumerable, sketches strewn over every surface, flecks and splashes of brilliant pigments bejeweling the room with color. But where, one might wonder, do those colors come from? Where (circa, say, 1600) would one get paint? The answer to that is fascinating and, sometimes, a bit macabre.
Attributed to Aert van der Neer and Workshop, Canal Scene in Moonlight, circa 1660s, oil on canvas, 31 7/8 x 39 1/4 in., Purchased with funds from the State of North Carolina. The rich blues in this painting come from the mineral vivianite, which is often found growing on the teeth and bones of decaying corpses. Happy Halloween!
There was nothing even resembling an art supply store anywhere in Europe until about 1642, so up until that point, artists’ pigments were prepared by apprentices and other tradesmen. Most came from apothecaries, simply because the substances used for medicine were often the same ones used for paint. Others were the byproducts of other industries, like blue smalt, a byproduct of glassmaking. But a few came from more ... dubious sources.
When NCMA conservators were studying Canal Scene in Moonlight (circa 1660s) from the Museum’s Dutch collection, they noticed something looked “off.” The rich blues in the painting had long been thought to be sourced from azurite, one of only a handful of copper-based blue pigments. Azurite would have been fairly common and easy to obtain—and much less expensive than the highly sought-after ultramarine, ground from the semiprecious lapis lazuli. But NCMA Conservator of Paintings Noelle Ocon wasn’t so sure. An X-ray fluorescence scan (an analytical technique used to identify elemental composition) of the blue pigment in the painting confirmed her suspicion: no copper, which meant, no azurite. The substance that Van der Neer used to obtain that magical blue turned out to be vivianite, a quirky little mineral only recently discovered to have been used as a pigment for European easel paintings. Forming in iron-rich environments like peat bogs, vivianite is often found growing in crystalline clusters on the teeth and bones of decaying corpses like the “bog bodies” of Northern Europe and the British Isles.
The substance that Van der Neer used to obtain that magical blue turned out to be vivianite, a quirky mineral often found on the teeth and bones of decaying corpses like the “bog bodies” of Northern Europe and the British Isles.
That gorgeous blue isn’t the only color with a history that might give you the creeps.
Indian yellow was used as a pigment for painting until law prohibited its production in the early 20th century. It was produced from the urine of cows fed exclusively with mango leaves. It was sought by artists for its radiant hue … and despite its odor.
Carmine, a vibrant red pigment, was made by grinding a particular red scale insect called cochineal. Varieties of this unfortunate insect can be found throughout the world, and although it was largely abandoned for use in paint, it is still widely used as a colorant in cosmetics and food.
Cornelis de Vos, Retouched (?) by Peter Paul Rubens, King Philip III of Spain, 1635, oil on canvas, 94 x 51 in., Purchased with funds from the North Carolina State Art Society (Robert F. Phifer Bequest). Although our conservators have not analyzed this painting for the presence of cochineal, the historical context strongly suggests its presence. Not only is the rich red paint likely to contain “bug blood,” as Associate Conservator Perry Hurt lovingly refers to it, but the actual fabric that Philip was wearing as he posed for the painting was probably dyed with cochineal as well.
Orpiment, or king’s yellow, was especially attractive to painters of religious icons because of its resemblance to gold. However, this beautiful pigment has another name—arsenic sulfide—a good enough reason to refrain from holding a paintbrush in your mouth if you were a painter in 1600.
Attributed to Tintoretto (Jacopo Comin), The Forge of Vulcan, circa 1544–48, oil on canvas, 30 1/2 x 52 1/2 in., Gift of Mr. and Mrs. W. Lunsford Long. Orpiment, or king’s yellow, can be seen in this work by Tintoretto. It is applied very thinly over the upper areas of the painting to create the warm, orange tones.
Mummy brown was just that—a pigment made from grinding up actual mummies. There was a widely held belief that the wrappings and preserved bodies of ancient Egyptians contained medicinal, and even magical, properties. By the 16th century, the export of mummies from Egypt to Europe for the purpose of grinding into a medicinal powder was booming. In addition to being used orally and topically as a rumored cure for all kinds of ailments, mumia, as it was also known, was mixed with other substances to create a rich brown pigment for painting. Surprisingly, mumia was used right up until the 1960s, when the last manufacturer ran out of mummies.
John Singleton Copley, Sir William Pepperrell (1746-1816) and His Family, 1778, oil on canvas, 90 x 108 in., Purchased with funds from the State of North Carolina. Testing for the presence of mummy brown is problematic for conservators, since it is organic matter with no signature chemical composition to look for. But this painting almost certainly made use of it “because it comes from exactly the time when English painters were using mummy … A LOT,” according to Associate Conservator Perry Hurt (pictured here).
Copley, an American, had ventured to England to further his painting career. The portrait Sir William commissioned from Copley was created after the tragic death of Lady Pepperrell; thus, the painting is an elaborate fiction, the family made whole again, a comforting vision of what might have been had not death come knocking.
So next time you wander through the galleries looking at all the beautiful paintings and marveling at the amazing use of color … consider the source.
Mad about mummies? Mark your calendar for Egyptian Mummies: Exploring Ancient Lives, coming to the NCMA in October 2018.