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The Colorful Stories of 5 Obsolete Art Pigments

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The colors of art change not just with trends, but availability as well. For reasons of being incredibly poisonous, expensive, or just involving way too many snails, here are five pigments that have disappeared from art.

Maya Blue

Mayan Mural, involving the Maya Blue pigment (via Wikispaces)
Mayan Mural, involving the Maya Blue pigment (via Wikispaces)

On murals, pottery, even possibly painted on the hapless bodies offered as human sacrifices, a sky-blue color has been found in artifacts of the Maya and Aztec. It disappeared around colonial times in Central America, just like the pre-Columbian civilizations themselves. Known as Maya Blue, it’s long been recognized as a mix of a natural clay and a dye from the indigo plant, but how it was so durable in not being subject to fading or even the deterioration of solvents and acids has been a mystery. Earlier this year, however, some chemists announced they may have found the secret in careful variations in the preparation temperatures.

Tyrian Purple

Burial Shroud of Charlemagne (early 9th century), made of Byzantine silk colored with Tyrian Purple (via Wikimedia)
Burial Shroud of Charlemagne (early 9th century), made of Byzantine silk colored with Tyrian Purple (via Wikimedia)

The most prized, prestigious pigment of the ancient world was actually made from a rather slimy source: a predatory snail. Tyrian Purple got its name from the best of the marine shellfish used to make the pigment being found off the shore of Phoenicia’s Tyre, according to Pigment Compendium. Not only was it a properly royal color of rich, slightly red purple, it was said to get even more beautiful and brighter when exposed to the sun and the elements. Yet since you needed a whole pile of snails to have enough mucous secretions to make it, it was very expensive, and eventually disappeared.

White Lead

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White Lead in Johannes Vermeer’s “The Glass of Wine” (1658), oil on canvas (via WikiPaintings)

The luminosity of classical European oil paintings was due in large part to White Lead, a pigment of lead carbonate and sulfate. Artists like Vermeer used it to create a special kind of light that radiated from the canvas, the traces of which we can see in its grainy texture. Unfortunately, its striking brightness was rather poisonous. Yet as Applied Polymer Science explains about the lead paint: “Toxicity was recognized, but accepted.” It’s since been largely replaced by Titanium White, a less hazardous, although not as structurally strong, pigment, yet some artists still seek out the White Lead for its believed superior color and permanence, even if it is more difficult to find and still toxic.

Lapis Lazuli

Lapis Lazuli used in a detail of "The Ascension," attributed to Jacopo di Cione (1371) (via The National Gallery, London(
Lapis Lazuli used in a detail of “The Ascension,” attributed to Jacopo di Cione (1371)
(via The National Gallery, London)

Widely believed to be the most expensive pigment ever created, more pricey than even its weight in gold, the Lapis Lazuli pigment was made from grinding up Lapis Lazuli semi-precious stones. Its use goes back to the 6th century in Afghanistan, but its popularity really took off with wealthy Renaissance patrons who wanted the stunning blue on the robes of Mary and Jesus in religious paintings. The “ultra marine” color, as it was also known, largely disappeared as it was so incredibly expensive and required quarries to collect the stones. However, you can actually buy it at the Kremer Pigmente store in Manhattan for $360 for five grams.

Dragon’s Blood

Mural in the Villa of Mysteries in Pompeii, said to incorporate the Dragon's Blood pigment. (via Wikimedia)
Mural in the Villa of Mysteries in Pompeii, said to incorporate the Dragon’s Blood pigment. (via Wikimedia)

The pigment known as Dragon’s Blood had the most epic and ridiculous of origin stories, a supposed mix of actual dragon’s blood and elephant’s blood. Andrew Dalby’s Dangerous Tastes chronicles this incredible story from the 16th century navigator Richard Eden:

“[Elephants] have continual warre against Dragons, which desire their blood, because it is very cold: and therefore the Dragon lying awaite as the Elephant passeth by, windeth his taile, being of exceeding length, about the hinder legs of the Elephant, and when the Elephant waxeth faint, he falleth down on the serpent, being now full of blood, and with the poise of his body breaketh him: so that his owne blood with the blood of the Elephant runneth out of him mingled together, which being colde, is congealed into that substance which the Apothecaries call Sanguis Draconis, that is Dragons blood, otherwise called Cinnabaris.”

As freaking exciting as a battle between an elephant and dragon would be, the pigment was in actuality made from a Southeast Asian tree — though the story certainly helped hype it to outside buyers, and its blood red color was popular in the ancient world. It faded out of mainstream popularity around the 19th century, probably alongside the very much waning fascination with elephant vs. dragon battles.

 

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Mummy Brown

Martin Drölling, "L'intérieur d'une cuisine" (1815), believed to have been painted with Mummy Brown (via the Louvre)
Martin Drölling, “L’intérieur d’une cuisine” (1815), believed to have been painted with Mummy Brown (via the Louvre)

A fantastic Twitter tip from Art vs Artifact informed us of another vanished pigment with an incredible story: Mummy Brown. The pigment, a favored shade of the Pre-Raphaelites, was first made with Egyptian mummies, both cat and human, that were ground up and mixed with white pitch and myrrh. It had a great fleshy color, but due to the actual fleshy components it would crack over time. Martin Drölling, who painted the work shown above, reportedly used the mummies of French kings dug up from Saint-Denis in Paris. According to a 1964 Time story, the Mummy Brown pigment didn’t last due to a shortage of its name defining ingredient. Managing director of the London based C. Roberson color maker told the magazine:

“We might have a few odd limbs lying around somewhere, but not enough to make any more paint.”

Indian Yellow

Here’s another curious, and unsettling, pigment tip from Twitter on Indian Yellow. According to Philip Ball’s Bright Earth: Art and the Invention of Color, the vivid color of Indian Yellow was a source of mystery until the late 19th century. It turned out that the yellow color came from the urine of cattle in the Bihar province of India that were fed only mango leaves and water. The mistreatment of the animals led to the color being illegal and it vanished by 1908.

Scheele’s Green

From the comments, we got a tip on Scheele’s Green. The yellow-green pigment was a cupric hydrogen arsenite, which was very toxic, yet made it into not just paintings, but candles, wallpaper, and children’s toys. In one incident at a Christmas party, a candle dyed with the color poisoned children, and other 19th century incidents include women in green dresses passing out and those using it to print newspapers suffering from its effects. The arsenic vapors also are believed by some to have played a role in the death of Napoleon, who lived in a room paintly brightly green, his favorite color, as traces of arsenic were found in his hair.

And and we continued this investigation into obsolete colors with “More Vibrant Tales of Obsolete Pigments.”

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