Above all colours, red is by far the most dramatic and suggestive, spanning a spectrum from bright and jovial to mysterious and brooding. It conjures notions of love, passion, anger, hot-headedness and even violence – but also the blush of youth, ripened fruit and, yes, Christmas. As if red were not freighted with enough symbolism, in 16th-century Europe the colour took on a new potency, signifying wealth, trade, power and colonialism, all thanks to a tiny insect called the cochineal.
In 1519, Hernán Cortés landed on the Yucatán Peninsula and, having seized control of the Aztec Empire, claimed the land for the Spanish Crown. Soon a local red dyestuff caught the eye of the conquistador. The intensely rich pigment was made from dried and crushed cochineal beetles and was coveted by the region’s inhabitants, who used it to make brightly coloured textiles and offered it by the sack-load to their emperor. Recognising a lucrative opportunity, Cortés wrote to Charles V of Spain to inform him of the dye’s potential profitability back at home. “Discovering” cochineal meant that the Spanish Crown could dominate its commercialisation, a monopoly it would maintain until Mexico gained independence in 1821. And so began Europe’s obsession with red, bringing with it an explosion in international commerce.
AN ILLUSTRATION BY JOSÉ ANTONIO DE ALZATE Y RAMÍREZ SHOWS THE AZTEC ART OF COLLECTING COCHINEAL BEETLES TO MAKE RED DYE.
Luckily for the conquistadors, the indigenous people now under their rule had been refining the art of cochineal cultivation for centuries. The insects themselves feast on the sap of cacti, and their favourite food is the prickly pear. The Aztecs had selectively bred and nurtured the spine-covered plant to be the perfect host for the insects, which they fittingly referred to as nocheztli, an amalgamation of the words for “prickly pear fruit” and “blood.” A 1777 illustration by José Antonio de Alzate y Ramírez depicts an indigenous man delicately brushing cochineal from the pads of a cactus using the preferred and very nifty harvesting tool for it: a severed deer’s tail. Once gathered and dried, the beetles were packed into cakes to be sold.
In the 16th century, Europe’s obsession with a vastly expensive and beautifully potent red dye proved extremely lucrative for the Spanish Crown.
Under the Spanish, Oaxaca became the centre for mass cultivation of cochineal, with labour performed largely by peasants. From Mexico, the dyestuff was shipped to Seville and Cádiz and then transported to satisfy feverish demand across Europe. In the hands of skilled dye makers, the powder was transformed into an intense and durable pigment. Trade in cochineal positively boomed. With a favourable value-to-weight ratio, even small amounts were vastly expensive to purchase and extremely profitable. In 1630, a pound of dried cochineal cost between four and six silver pesos – that’s 60 times the value of the equivalent weight in sugar.
IN ANTHONY VAN DYCK’S CIRCA 1621 PORTRAIT, CARDINAL AGOSTINO PALLAVICINI WEARS LAVISH, CRIMSON, COCHINEAL-DYED ROBES.
Red is an audacious colour choice that might overwhelm a woman less certain of her own allure.
A STRIKING LOOK FROM VALENTINO’S AUTUMN 2016 COUTURE SHOW IN PARIS.
Prior to the arrival of cochineal from the Americas, Europeans dyed red cloth with kermes, a pigment produced in a similar way but using a local species of beetle. Dyeing with kermes required a far greater quantity of insects, however, so within 50 years of cochineal’s introduction, dyers had ditched the European bugs in favour of their cousins from “New Spain.” Cochineal was ten to twelve times more powerful than kermes, producing a more enduring and much higher-quality colour with only a fraction of the dye. Better still, cochineal delivered a whole spectrum of reds, from vivid scarlet to deep burgundy. The desired shade could be altered depending on the ingredients. For example, the addition of alkaline vegetal ash would result in a deep burgundy shade, while including acidic plants in the mix would produce a brighter scarlet hue, like that of the striking outfit worn by the Baronne de Crussol Florensac in Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun’s portrait of 1785. The baronne’s rather daring, over-the-shoulder pose displays the fine tailoring of her casaquin jacket to perfection, accentuating her slender waist and the curve of her back. But what really steals the show is her audacious choice of colour, a shade that might have overwhelmed a woman less certain of her own allure.
AN 18TH-CENTURY BEAUTY: BARONNE DE CRUSSOL FLORENSAC, PAINTED BY ÉLISABETH LOUISE VIGÉE LE BRUN IN 1785.
Perhaps most archetypal is red’s inextricable link with Christian iconography and the adornments of the Catholic Church. To believers, it symbolises the blood of Christ and serves as a stark reminder of his sacrifice for mankind. Little wonder then that cardinals, the pope’s closest dignitaries, have for centuries worn crimson vestments. In Anthony van Dyck’s circa 1621 portrait of Agostino Pallavicini, the cardinal cuts an imposing figure in the blood-red robes that denote his role as the pope’s ambassador. While the vestments are a reminder of the Eucharist, this opulent attire would also have been a clear marker of the Church’s financial and political might.
AN 18TH-CENTURY BEAUTY: SARAH CHURCHILL, IN A CIRCA 1700 PORTRAIT BY CHARLES JERVAS. © CROWN COPYRIGHT: UK GOVERNMENT ART COLLECTION.
Even cochineal’s extreme expense didn’t seem to curtail the fanatical demand for red textiles in 16th- and 17th-century Europe. If you couldn’t find a shade of red to complement your complexion, you didn’t have to wear the colour to show off your wealth. Lavish crimson fabrics could be strewn about interiors as bedspreads, cushions, carpets and other soft furnishings. Just think of the vast number of portraits with a strategically placed red velvet chair, or staged with a heavily draped, wine-coloured curtain as the backdrop. Whether for ceremonial, imperial or purely fashionable purposes, as long as cochineal trickled into Europe from the New World, there was a red for everyone. Provided, of course, you had the means to afford it.
Jonquil O’Reilly is an Old Master Paintings specialist at Sotheby’s. Visit our site for more history of style in painting and video featuring the Costumist.