The Unusual Origin.

Indian yellow is a strong transparent pigment favored by many artists for its tinting properties. This yellow-orange color’s most alluring characteristic is that it can be used to warm up a color. Added to pink it makes that color turn red. Added to Cerulean Blue it makes a vibrant green. Despite its workability as a warming agent with strong tinting power, it always stank. And, its so-called origin story is most certainly tainted. 

Truth or Fiction?

Scholars believe that Indian Yellow, also known as Indian Purée, originated in Persia or India. As the story goes, the first real production was developed in India in the 15th century in the northeastern region, just south of Nepal. This captivating color provides a translucent warmth that is essential to some artists’ palettes. But the fascinating story of the color tells us that to achieve this unique hue, cows were fed on a restricted diet of mango leaves and water. The resulting bovine urine was collected and formed into lumps which were used to create pigments. Hence the smell…

 

Jean-Honoré Fragonard’s painting “A Young Girl Reading” mid 18th century.
About the time Fragonard painted this portrait, synthetic pigments were being developed from chemical compounds. If he had used Indian Yellow in this painting, the color we see now might have faded over time…

Vincent Van Gogh; The Starry Night (1889):  Van Gogh captured the power of the night in a restless sky with the glowing stars enhanced using  Indian Yellow. Though the color yellow does not play a dominant role in this piece, it adds a strong complement in The Starry Night

The Burning of the Houses of Lords and Commons by J. M. W. Turner, February 1835, shows the Houses of Parliament. The fire reflects dull red in the water, with a crowd of spectators in the foreground. The painting was acquired by the Philadelphia Museum of Art in 1928 as part of the John Howard McFadden Collection.

The Pigment in Art

Naturally, Indian Yellow is found in Indian art. Here’s a piece from the 1600s. It is generally believed that the Dutch introduced Indian Yellow to Europe as they were trading with Indian regions around the 17th century.  Although the pigment was embraced by European artists, in the late 1800s The Royal Society of Arts in Great Britain began an investigation into the production of Indian Yellow because of alleged animal cruelty. The Society noted that feeding cows a minimal diet of mango leaves caused long-term damage that would lead to a painful death. Twenty-five years later production was banned in Indian.

Truth is Stranger than Fiction

Many simply did not believe this origin story of Indian yellow. Royal Talens, the paint manufacturer mentions this on their website noting “The British journalist Victoria Finlay, too, cast doubt on the story of the ‘mango cows’. In her book, ‘Colour, Travels Through the Paintbox’ she suggested that it was probably made up in order to ‘take the piss’ out of the English rulers.”  ( Taking the piss out of something is a Commonwealth [British] expression meaning to mock, tease, joke, ridicule, or scoff.”)

Nowadays Indian Yellow is available in a synthetic form without the participation of livestock or mango leaves.  Though not as vibrant as the original Indian Yellow, it is more stable and lightfast, so artists can rest assured that the development of Indian Yellow does not come at the expense of cows’ well-being.

Contemporary painting by John Larriva: “Sunbeam” using Indian Yellow.

 Blogger: Julie Snyder

Julie Snyder is a professional artist and also the programs director of Workshops In France.  A native of Scotland, she is a seasoned traveler who splits her time between California and France. You can learn more about her role with Workshops in France here.

Shirley Hambrick artist

Check out more blogs about art workshops, tips and hacks for artists traveling in France and Scotland.

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