Books

The Regal, Bloody, and Fiery History of the Color Red

Michel Pastoureau’s new book tackles the complicated history of the color red, from regal hue of kings to scandalous shade of harlots.

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, “The Box with the Golden Mask” (1894), oil on paperboard (courtesy Albertina, Graphic Arts Collection, © AKG Images)

Does the warning red of our stop signs burble up from the color’s association with medieval morality? Does the emergence of red as an idealogical identity in right-wing American politics have some echo of the color’s use as a symbol of power, such as the red cloak of Charlemagne and the Phrygian cap of the French Revolution? Michel Pastoureau’s Red: The History of a Colorrecently released by Princeton University Press, is a concise biography of the complex symbolism and perception of this hue of blood and fire.

Cover of Red: The History of a Color (courtesy Princeton University Press)

“For thousands of years in the West, red was the only color worthy of that name, the only true color,” Pastoureau begins, noting the naturally-occurring pigments like red ochre in the Lascaux cave paintings as among the first colors used in art. He adds that “in most ancient languages (and in the ancient forms of a great number of modern languages), red, white, and black are colors more often named than green, yellow, and blue.”

Pastoureau is a historian and director of studies at the École Pratique des Hautes Études de la Sorbonne in Paris, with the English language edition of Red translated by Jody Gladding. The compact hardback follows Pastoureau’s histories of blue in 2001, black in 2009, and green in 2014 (he notes in Red that yellow is probably next). Similar to these previous publications, Red concentrates on the color’s history in Europe, using examples from art to illustrate its evolving associations. He writes that it’s “very much a history of the color red, not an encyclopedia of red, and even less a study of the color in the contemporary world alone.”

Pages from Red: The History of a Color (photo of the book for Hyperallergic)
Félix Vallaton, “La Chambre Rouge” (1898) (courtesy Musée Cantonal des Beaux-Arts, © AKG Images)

Thus it is far from a comprehensive analysis of the color, yet it is an engaging introduction to our relationship to red. The book is organized into four sections: “The First Color” from the earliest eras to antiquity; “The Favorite Color” from the sixth to 14th centuries; “A Controversial Color” from 14th to 17th centuries; and “A Dangerous Color?” 18th to 21st centuries. Along the way, Pastoureau highlights pivotal shifts in its significance in society, whether its vilification during the soberly-attired 16th-century Protestant Reformation (imagine Martin Luther painted by Lucas Cranach the Elder in his black attire), its proliferation after the Spanish conquest of Mexico which allowed an increase in cochineal insects to smash into dye, or its use from the 14th to 17th centuries on the gaudy pieces of clothing prostitutes were required to wear to set them apart from society. While in Rome crimson flowers were frequently employed for funerals, especially those blooms that lose petals speedily as a reminder of life’s brevity, red later evoked the eternal life and holy blood of Christ through the vermilion dress of cardinals and the Pope, although red has now faded from his garb into a papal white.

Perhaps most surprising is the impact of Newton’s color spectrum on red’s status. “With Isaac Newton’s discovery of the color spectrum in 1666, a new classification system that the physics and chemistry of colors still relies upon today, red lost its place at the center of the chromatic scale, where it had been throughout antiquity and the Middle Ages,” Pastoureau writes. “Now it was located at one end: an inglorious position for the former queen of colors, which seemed to have lost a share — but just one share — of its symbolic powers.”

So although it rests vivid as the fires of hell, the blood of martyrs, the dragon of the Apocalypse, the radiance of beauty, and the burning color of love, red has fallen from its top status in art, language, and symbolism. “This is the paradox of red today,” Pastoureau concludes. “No longer our favorite, it has increasingly withdrawn from our everyday environment, and in many areas it has been outstripped by blue or else by green, but it remains the strongest color symbolically.”

Pages from Red: The History of a Color (photo of the book for Hyperallergic)
Stained glass window representing spring in the Notre-Dame Cathedral, Paris. Medieval roses were not pink, but red or white (1260) (© Jean-Paul Dumontier, La Collection, Service Presse)
Pages from Red: The History of a Color (photo of the book for Hyperallergic)
Dying red, either with madder, brazilwood, orcein, or kermes, the water of a vat that would be boiling hot, Bartholomaeus Anglicus and Jean Corbechon, Le Livres des Propriétés des Choses, manuscript copied and painted in Brussels (1482) (© The British Library Board/Leemage)
Boris Grigoriev, “Entrez!” (1913) (courtesy Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts, © Fine Art Images/Leemage)

Red: The History of a Color by Michel Pastoureau is out now from Princeton University Press.

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