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Paintings of People: Sally Woodcock and Narayan Khandekar Unearth the History of Mummy Pigment

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Painting conservator Sally Woodcock got right to the point when discussing mummy brown pigment during Harvard Art Museums’s “Conversations Around Funerary Portraits.” In short, she said, it’s “paint made out of people.

This online event was held in conjunction with the museum’s “Funerary Portraits from Roman Egypt: Facing Forward” exhibit — a display which brings Roman-period Egyptian portraits to life at the museum through a guided discovery of the role of funerary portraits, rituals, and even pigments.

At the Oct. 12 event, Woodcock spoke with Harvard Art Museum’s Director and Senior Conservation Scientist, Narayan Khandekar about one particular pigment’s complicated history.

In 1996, Woodcock published a widely influential article entitled “Body colour: The misuse of mummy,” in which she details the production, history, and use of pigments made from the bodies and wrappings of mummies. Woodcock stated that of all her papers, this is “the one people ask about most.” With her proven expertise on mummy pigment and Khandekar’s experience as curator of the Forbes Pigment Collection, this Zoom conversation featured an impressive body of knowledge and ignited curiosity about the infamous morbid pigment.

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Khandekar and Woodcock took inventory of their collective insights to examine the origins of mummy brown and trace its usage through art history. Woodcock explained that the bituminous paint was initially prized among painters for its smooth handling in application. Though portraits using mummy are difficult to identify, she clarified, the pigment has been recognized in the palettes of influential painters like Eugene Delacroix and Martin Drolling.

The paint isn’t a perfect find, however — it begins to crack and fade with time. A lack of demand and a waning number of available mummies meant the production of mummy brown was dwindling by the 1910s. Still, companies like C. Roberson and Co. continued to include mummy pigment in artist catalogs until over a decade later.

The conversation then turned to the evolving attitudes toward mummy brown. Beyond its utility as an art material, the pigment was largely desired for its connection to ancient Egypt. Khandekar and Woodcock discussed its function as a tangible manifestation of the 18th and 19th century fixation on Egyptian society.

According to Woodcock, the paint acted as a form of macabre souvenir; this only exacerbated the perception of Egypt as exotic and foreign, its people exempt from personal resonance in the Western world by distance, time, and culture. As such, painters and manufacturers didn’t afford the mummified individuals the same reverence as deceased individuals from the Victorian era. Paint made from the bodies of mummies was briefly accepted due to the difficulty Western society had in “recognizing that they were human, like us,” Narayan Khandekar said.

Woodcock countered with a story of a painter by the name of Edward Burne-Jones. Upon learning of the origins of the content of the paint in his palette, Burne-Jones reportedly conducted a Christian burial in his backyard for the tube. The dissonance between Christian and Egyptian funerary traditions was not lost on the speakers, but they noted that Burne-Jones’s discovery marked an increased awareness of the pigment’s sourcing in the art world and a shift in the sensitivity of museums to human remains such as those in mummy brown in their collections.

Nonetheless, Khandekar and Woodcock discussed the echoes of 19th century mummy portraits in modern times. Though mummy brown is no longer used in painting, Woodcock added that she finds a striking parallel in today’s industry of portraiture with the ashes of loved ones. Incorporating human remains into artistic materials much like the mummy pigment, this practice integrates the memorialized individuals themselves into the memorial art. “I still find it quite strange,” she said.

Tubes of mummy pigment are on display in the exhibit “Funerary Portraits from Roman Egypt: Facing Forward,” which is open at the Harvard Art Museums through Dec. 30.

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