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Art + History ~ History's Love Affair with 'Red'

Can the exploration of a color be a way to take an artistic swan dive into history?


And, if the color is red, then positively absolutely.

Amazingly enough, triggering an interest in the past and making historical connections can be as easy as cherrypicking shades on a palette. Colors have their own biographies and backstories, personalities and associations. What is more, red has a bevy of shades under its sumptuous umbrella that create nuances in meaning: vermilion, crimson, russet, scarlet, candy-apple, currant, mahogany, merlot, cherry, garnet…

…and so on.

But, as a color, red has a history that belies its immediate associations with candy-coated holidays and scarlet exclamations of scandal. Sometimes a lusty linchpin to the past, and sometimes a symbol of Mars-esq vengeance, the history of red corresponds to the history of mankind itself, dating back to prehistoric images on cave walls. Cave paintings were made from ochre, a “clay pigmented by hematite, a reddish mineral that contains oxidized iron, which is iron that’s mixed with oxygen” (Geggel). Because it is a mineral, ochre doesn’t wash away, and so, the pigment stuck to the porous walls, allowing modern-day historians to hypothesize as to how the paint was applied: with fingertips, twigs, feathers and brushes made from horsehair.

Throughout history, red has also been synonymous with power, an analogy derived from the fact that blood is red and he who sheds the most blood on the battlefield often claims victory. For that reason, “Pliny mentioned that the red dye Cochineal was reserved for Roman generals, and the color, however conspicuous and impractical, has often been used by warriors since, including the British redcoats” (St. Clair, 136). On the walls of Pompeii, cinnabar can still be seen, a reminder that it was so valued that it cost more than red ochre and Egyptian blue.

As for the Egyptians, ancient Egyptian women used red ochre on lips and cheeks to express that they were healthy and full of life. Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, Aztecs used Cochineal, small red insects that feed on pear cactus leaves, to create what is called Carmine Red. The emboldened color was often used on the headdress of priests.

Renaissance painter Titian famously said, “A good painter needs only three colors, black, white and red” (Art Story) To that end, he especially loved the color vermilion, and he layered his paintings with the shade, creating an almost multidimensional effect. Not as bloody as its crimson counterpart, vermilion has an orangish quality to it, and was made from cinnabar. In particular, the color was used extensively in Titian’s Madonna and Child with Saints Catherine of Alexandria and Dominic, a Donor (1513). Amid a palette of whites, tans and blacks, the color gives a sense of action and vibrancy to the Madonna, centering her as the being who is giving life and optimism to the world.

While modern Western Society has allowed white to domineer at weddings, red’s organic association with feelings of love and passion has made it an essential color for Chinese brides, who also walk down red carpets and say vows beneath a red veil. The color red extends to guests as well, for there is a tradition of wrapping gifts of money and other objects in a red paper envelope called angpao.

On the pop cultural front, red dominates with symbolism. In Jezebel, (1938), Bette Davis’s character - Julie - makes a statement by forgoing the white ballgown that unmarried southern belles typically wear, and makes society gasp by wearing a red gown. Though she regrets her decision for all the snubbing that occurs, her scarlet dress is nevertheless her statement gown of fiery independence. A red dress as the uniform of the fallen, (or, at the very least, falling), woman continues with Nicole Kidman’s character Satine in Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge (2001). During scenes where Satine and her paramour, Christian (Ewan McGregor), were incandescently in love, Lurhman was able to cinematically enhance the colors, saturating the image with the corresponding emotion

Then there are the dual sequined red dresses - with slits from toe to upper thigh - donned by showgirls Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1954), and pouty sex symbol Jessica Rabbit’s fit-like-a-glove number in Robert Zemeckis’ groundbreaking Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988). In both cases, the red dresses symbolizes ultimate desire and forbidden attraction. Isabelle Adjani wears a pearl-laden baroque red dress for her role as the eponymous La Reine Margot (1994), directed by Patrice Chéreau. The fact that the sensual and damned-by-circumstances-and-family future queen wears the dress to her wedding in the opening scene is foreshadowing of the passions and frustrations to come.

Perhaps one of the most iconic red dresses comes courtesy of history and film. After eighteen years of imprisonment in England, Mary Queen of Scots was executed at Fotheringhay Castle in 1587. Before she knelt for her beheading, Mary removed her outer clothes to reveal a scarlet colored gown. To onlookers and historians alike, the message was clear - she had chosen the signature shade of martyrdom, and the color red was therefore her way of having the last word before death took her. This image was revised with colorful contrasts in Shekhar Kapur’s film Elizabeth: The Golden Age (2007), where Samantha Morgan, as the titular Queen Mary, flings off her rustic robes to reveal a redder than red dress beneath, before her beheading.

Speaking of the film industry, (because why not?), taking a tour through several directors’ oeuvres of the 1990s and early 2000s will find red as a dominant color scheme in the scenery and in objects. In Pedro Almodóvar’s All About My Mother (1999), red splashes its way across the film, from the red billboard for A Streetcar Named Desire to Manuela’s coat, all to represent danger and heady passion. As the director himself has said:

“Colour idealises an object and gives it an artificial value I like. I believe this artifice in the objects, the walls, the décor, the clothes…that reveals and singles out the characters in my films. It also completely isolates what interests me most in my films: the story itself and the characters’ emotions” (Crummy)

In the whimsical movie Amélie (2001) by Jean-Pierre Jeunet, red pops up in the beginning of the film as the young Amélie eats red raspberries and red cherries, while also tending to her pet fish that is, of course, red. In this instance the convergence of reds indicates youthful passion and lust for life.

From religious art to fashion, from rouge on the cheeks to red in the details, the color red zigzags its way through history and art, offering themes and symbolism that any budding historian or seasoned scholar can use to unlock new doors to energize the study of the past. It also fuses the bond between art and history, proving, yet again, that art is the gateway to forever enrich historical comprehension.

Works Cited

Cain, Abigail. “The 20,000 Year Old History of Red Pigments in Art.” Artsy, 12 February, 2017, Accessed 15 January 2020.

Crummy, Colin. “Colour, Couches & Catholicism: Investigating Almodóvar’s Movies.” 25 August, 2016. Acessed 18 January 2020.

Geggel, Laura. “Ochre: The World’s First Red Paint.” Livescience. 20 November 2018, Accessed 16 January 2020.

St. Clair, Kassia. The Secret Lives of Color. New York, NY, Penguin Random House, 2016.

“Summary of Titian.” The Art Story. Accessed 18 January 2020.

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