The Indian Yellow Scheme

yellow pigment

Indian Yellow is a transparent yellow pigment, used in oil paint and watercolours. Nowadays it’s a pretty boring pigment: a mixture of nickel azo, hansa yellow and the tongue-twister ‘quinacridone burt orange’, but it’s been at the centre of a historical claim of animal cruelty: disputed as early as 1830 (the pigment was introduced to India in the 15th century, and from there to Europe in the 18th), the myth still lingers today and is reprinted in (among other works) the Royal Academy of Arts books on traditional fine arts. It is agreed upon by almost every person who’ve done some kind of independent research that the origin of the pigment is another and that the animals were never hurt. But what is the myth then?

The myth is that the Indian Yellow pigment is produced from the urine of cows fed only mango leaves and only scarsely watered, kept extremely underfed and malnourished, and the urine then dried for the pigment. In 1844, chemist John Stenhouse concluded that the pigment was indeed “the juice of some tree or plant, which, after it has been expressed, has been saturated with magnesia and boiled down to its present consistence.

The interesting thing here is therefore not the myth itself, but that it has survived merely because it involves tormenting of cows by people seen as less civilised by the British, Dutch and German painters who used the pigment, ant then kept alive by authors throughout the centuries, and taught as fact despite the obvious Urban Legend quality of the myth.

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