Indian Yellow

In past centuries, artists in Europe had difficulty obtaining a good quality yellow paint. One particular yellow paint yields a good story. 

In the 1600s the Dutch set up a predatory merchant empire in Asia, financed by bringing Asian goods back to Europe and selling them for high prices. The Dutch were constantly on the lookout for new commodities, and found in India a yellow pigment that proved popular with European artists. The pigment had been used for several centuries in the painting of miniatures in India.

The pigment originated in the 1400s in Bengal. Cows were fed a diet exclusively of mango leaves. The ground where the cows urinated was gathered up and processed, resulting in a yellow pigment like the yellow colors of cut mango fruit. 

Some of the yellow pigment in many of Europe’s most glorious paintings originated in cow urine. The practice was ended early in the 1900s because of concerns that mango leaf diet was cruel to the cows. It’s a good story, and one widely told. The trouble is, like so many good stories, it may not be true.

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