A Colored Past (1): Blood and Rubies

A Colored Past: a series introducing the psychological and material history of the colors that surround us in art, fashion and textiles.
Red: it’s the color of ferment, of things as they rush towards the surface. Molten earth pouring out, signaling seismic change; a blush of passion or embarrassment, uncontainable on the face; and, of course, blood. Since pre-history, red has been a color associated with intense emotions across the spectrum. Love, lust, anger and evil all have cross-cultural associations with this hue.
Some of the earliest dyes were based in ochre, a rust-colored clay lent a redness by iron oxide. Early cave paintings show traces of the pigment, which was also used to decorate the body. Various roots and leaves were also sources of red for millennia, though as one might expect, they produced earthier, ruddier shades sometimes closer to brown tones.
In the early 16th century, the cochineal beetle’s vivid red arrived in Europe via Spanish conquistadors. The cactus-dwelling insect could be collected, dried and crushed by hand to produce a striking vermillion hue. Without parallel in the European world, cochineal red became a coveted – and feared – development. Dyeing guilds banned the shade to protect their local products from competition, but the allure was inescapable and became a symbol of luxury.
From the robes of Catholic cardinals to the regalia of queens, in Europe bright red was adopted as a color of authority. Linked to the image of the blood of Christ, it became associated with both monarchy and sacred power (at this point two closely entwined concepts). Sumptuary laws during the Elizabethan era limited the wearing of the bold vermillion shades to those with power, though sheer economics probably could have sufficed – the color remained a difficult one to acquire and maintain as its production was still based on the cochineal beetle, requiring skilled handiwork to extract and fix.
By the 18th century, chemistry developed popular alternatives to cochineal red, and crimson came to become associated not only with the ruling class but also their detractors in socialist and other counter-political movements. It remains today a color often donned by populist parties, communist organizations and other forms of Leftist resistance.
In European art, red occupies emotional territory, often used in its purer shades not to realistically represent but rather to induce emotion in the viewer. Van Gogh explained in letters to his brother Theo that he sought to express conflict and passion with the vermillion walls of The Night Café; Matisse made use of the color to overwhelm the canvas in paintings like The Dessert – Harmony in Red. As the latter once mused, “A certain blue penetrates your soul, [but] a certain red affects your blood pressure.”
From the echelons of rarity to more revolutionary quarters, making its way through art, literature and textiles, red has marked kings, priests, warriors, adulterers, and radicals alike with its ability to evince passion, fury and a sense of the vibrant raw. It remains so today: when a well-heeled woman, for instance, turns and flashes crimson from her stiletto, doesn’t she leave a similar mark on our minds as she passes?
An early portrait of Elizabeth I by Steven van der Meulen, c. 1563