Being Valentine’s Day I have the color red on my mind. On Valentine’s Day, red is everywhere.
Cave art paintings of Lascaux in France
If any color can stake a claim to be the oldest, it is red. We’ve been seeing red since our neolithic days. It is the most primary of primary colors – the very blood in our veins is red.
So how did red become the color of love? 400 years ago in 17th-century France, red was a color of power. Red was always a color associated with palaces, with Versailles, in fact Louis XIV put a little red into every step he took. He was a man who was very proud of his legs. Known as having gorgeous legs and he wore all kinds of fashion that would show them off. Louis wore knee-length tight pants and beautiful silk stockings. His heels — which were quite high for a man — were not just red, but scarlet.
Red was an expensive color in 17th-century France because at the time, the dye was made from a little bug found in Mexican cactus, the cochineal. Soon nobles all over Europe were painting their heels red. Red was chic, flashy… and expensive.
Nilda and Acopia women dying yarn red
These white bugs produced a potent red dye so sought-after by artists and patrons that it quickly became the third greatest import out of the “New World” (after gold and silver), as explains Victoria Finlay in A Brilliant History of Color in Art. Raphael, Rembrandt, and Rubens all used cochineal as a glaze, layering the pigment atop other reds to increase their intensity. A non-toxic source for red pigment, the cochineal bug is still used to color lipsticks and blush today.
The bottom fell out of the bug market in the middle of the 1800s, when synthetic dyes were invented. Previously, red was only for the rich who could afford the expensive insect dye. In some cultures, the privilege of wearing red was reserved exclusively for the powerful. When you saw someone wearing red in Japan or Italy, the person was of high status.
Toulouse-Lautrec – The Box with the Golden Mask
Today Red has many faces and is the color of extremes. It’s the color of passionate love, seduction, violence, danger, anger, and adventure. Our prehistoric ancestors saw red as the color of fire and blood – energy and primal life forces – and most of red’s symbolism today arises from its powerful associations in the past.
Felix Vallotton – La Chambre Rouge
Red can be a naughty color — red-light districts and bordellos. It is both the color of Satan and the color of the Roman Catholic Church. Red is often associated with divinity; medieval and renaissance paintings show Jesus and the Virgin Mary in red robes. Red is for happiness — Indian brides get married in red saris. Red for good luck — the one-month birthday of a Chinese baby is celebrated with red eggs.
I’ll leave it with this though. In 1888, Vincent Van Gogh wrote that he “sought to express with red and green the terrible human passions”. Ancient, complex and representing extremes – red is nothing if not passionate. Perhaps Van Gogh would have seen red, should he have lived long enough to see the reds in his paintings starting to fade away.
Vincent Van Gogh – Field of Poppies