Arts and Letters Daily excerpts a bit from Michel Pastoureau’s Red: The History of a Color.
The late Middle Ages and the modern period have left us works by great painters that are particularly remarkable for their range of reds. Let us mention Van Eyck, Uccello, Carpaccio, Raphael, and later, Rubens and Georges de La Tour. But all artists seemed to love this color and tried to draw various tonalities from it. Accordingly they chose their pigments, taking into account not only their physicochemical properties, their ability to cover or make opaque, their resistance to light, and how easily they could be worked or combined with other pigments but also their price, availability, and—what is most disconcerting to us—the name they went by. Indeed we can observe in the laboratory that in panel paintings from the late Middle Ages, symbolically “negative” reds—those coloring the fires of hell, the face of the Devil, the coat or feathers of infernal creatures, and all impure blood of one kind or another—were often painted with the same pigment: sandarac, a resin lacquer more commonly called “cinnabar of the Indies” or “dragon’s blood.” Various legends circulated in workshops regarding this pigment, a relatively expensive one because it had to be imported from far away. It was believed to come not from a plant resin but from the blood of a dragon, gored by its mortal enemy, the elephant. According to medieval bestiaries, which followed Pliny and the ancient authors here, the inside of the dragon’s body was filled with blood and fire; after a fierce struggle, when the elephant had punctured the dragon’s belly with its tusks, out flowed a thick, foul, red liquid, from which was made a pigment used to paint all the shades of red considered evil. Legend won out over knowledge in this case, and painters’ choices gave priority to the symbolism of the name over the chemical properties of the pigment.
Unlike the dyers, the painters of the modern period hardly profited at all from the discovery of the New World or the settling of Europeans in the Americas. No truly new colorants resulted from these events. But Mexican cochineal, transformed into lacquer, allowed them to perfect a subtle, delicate pigment in the range of reds, superior to earlier lacquers from brazilwood or kermes for fixing a glaze over vermilion. Beginning in the sixteenth century, vermilion experienced a steady rise in popularity and its production became something of an industry, first in Venice, the European capital of color, and then in the Netherlands and Germany. It was sold in apothecaries, hardware shops, and paint stores, and even though it was more expensive and less stable than minium, it eventually contributed to that pigment’s decline.