Seeing red: a brief history of the colour red in art

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The colour of danger, scarlet passions, power and prestige — red has commanded the attention of artists for centuries. From the Paleolithic period to the contemporary, this archetypal colour has been utilised by artists to access the extremes of human experience. Red is blood, lust and rage, beginnings and violent ends. The colour of love and the colour of shame, it is the first true colour humans perceive after black and white. The second in a series on colour in art, ArtWeb explores the rich history of red, from Romans to Rothko.

Red ochre

Red ochre, red bison cave paintings
Photo by iStock.com/JESUSDEFUENSANTA

A naturally occurring clay pigment, red ochre takes its reddish colour from the mineral hematite. The Neanderthals began using the colour as far back as 250,000 years ago to decorate their bodies. In the Neolithic era, the pigment was used symbolically in ritual burial contexts, representing a return to earth, or possibly rebirth. In art, the earliest uses of red ochre pigment can be traced back to the Upper Paleolithic Period, as seen in the red bison cave paintings of Altamira, Spain, dated between 16,500 and 15,000 BC.

Victorious vermillion

Villa of the Mysteries, Pompeii (in the Public Domain)

Defining 15 different shades of the colour, red was very much en vogue amongst the ancient Romans. Used in frescoes that adorned the walls of their villas, the brilliant red of vermillion was a particular favourite. Yet, obtaining the colour was a death sentence for those extracting it from the mines of Almaden, Spain. Natural vermillion, derived from the mineral cinnabar, is an incredibly toxic mercuric sulfide. Because of the purity of the substance, and the danger in acquiring it, the pigment became immensely expensive, ten times the price of red ochre. It was used to smear the faces of victorious gladiators, and can still be seen today in the remaining murals that grace what were once upper-class homes of Pompeii.

Synthetic shades of scarlet

Emperor Jahangir weighs Prince Khurram, Manohar Das, 1610–15 (in the Public Domain)

Synthetic alternatives began to appear as early as the 12th century, and by the 15th century a new red began to take hold. Carmine, with it’s deep crimson overtures can be seen amongst the palettes of Rembrandt, Vermeer, Rubens and Velazquez. Made from cochineal bugs, when dried and crushed they produced a vivid red hue. Other popular synthetic pigments such as minium (‘red lead’), became prominent with Mughal artists from India and Persia in the 17th and 18th centuries, whose paintings were nicknamed ‘miniatures’ after the heavily featured minium in their works.

Holy red

Lucca Madonna, Jan van Eyck, 1436 (in the Public Domain)

Red has played an especially important role in the Catholic Church. Symbolic of the blood of Christ within Christian iconography, it was adopted by cardinals in 1244. Their red hats and robes mark their readiness to shed blood for the Church. The Madonna, typically portrayed in blue by Italian painters, was depicted in red by the Flemish masters, who reserved the colour for sacred figures due to the exclusivity of the cochineal dye in textiles. In Jan van Eyck’s Lucca Madonna, the impressive red drapery again comes to symbolise the passion and martyrdom of Christ.

Red flags

Eugène Delacroix, Liberty Leading the People, 1830 (in the Public Domain)

With the advent of the Protestant Reformation, the popularity of red began to decline due to its associations with immorality, sin, and the excesses of the Catholic Church. It gained new popularity amidst the French Revolution, where the colour came to be associated with freedom and liberty. In the 19th–20th century, red was taken up by political regimes and revolutionaries around the world, from China to Cuba.

Notably, red was prioritised in Constructivist works, an avant-garde movement that emerged alongside the Bolshevik Revolution. Today, red in political art continues to act as a synonym for ‘socialist’, ‘communist’, ‘extremist’, and ‘revolutionary’.

Paint it red

In 1910, cadmium red became available as a commercial product. Henri Matisse was the first prominent artist to champion the pigment in works such as The Dessert: Harmony in Red and The Red Studio. His red figures in Music reveal their contradictory nature — at once simple and evocatively charged. After all, red is a colour that exists at both ends of the spectrum of experience.

Another artist who famously dabbled in the psychological depths of red was Rothko, whose abstract paintings of wine reds and blacks are reminiscent of blurred doorways or portals. In 1959, Rothko visited Pompeii’s Villa of the Mysteries and felt a “deep affinity” to the “broad expanses of sombre colour” that haunt the frescoed walls. His work attests to red’s unique communicative power, its ability to express something fundamental.

Having dominated the visual realm for centuries, today, red has been surpassed by green and blue as the West’s favourite colour. However, there is still one place where it’s mercurial pull still holds: the art market. With red artworks fetching the highest price at auction, what does it say about the colour’s capacity to elicit the strongest human emotions? The French artist Louise Bourgeois once said: “Color is stronger than language. It’s a subliminal communication.” Red is an extroverted presence that beckons, demands attention, and at the same time, draws us inward, toward ourselves. In the words of contemporary artist Anish Kapoor: “It’s the colour of the interior of our bodies. Red is the centre.”


About The Author

Stephanie Gavan

Stephanie is a writer and visual artist from Liverpool, UK. She graduated from Goldsmiths College, London in 2014, where she studied Fine Art and History of Art. Previously, she worked as a Communications Assistant for Liverpool Biennial and co-edited feminist zine Queen of the Track. After two years of studying and teaching languages in Venice, Italy, she is currently undertaking an MA in Writing at the Royal College of Art.

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