Santa Fe, New Mexico is now presenting an exhibit at their Museum of International Folk Art titled “The Red That Colored the World.” This color is from a most unexpected source: the cochineal bug which was harvested from prickly pear cactus by the Aztecs and ground up with its eggs into a powder that can be used to produce pale pinks, vivid reds, deep burgundies and regal purples.
The exhibit traces the use of this unusual dye from as early as 600 to 1000 where it was used for body painting and on bold pottery designs up through present day. In the 1520’s Spanish invaders discovered the unusual pigment in the Mexico City marketplace and introduced it to Europe. Pigment from the inauspicious cochineal replaced other European sources of red dye and it became the second most important Spanish import after silver.
This red pigment soon became a favorite of famous painters to depict flesh tones, fabric and flowers. El Greco used it in his painting of Christ, “El Salvador” (1608-1614) and Rubens, Rembrandt and Van Gogh used the cochineal reds.
The costly pigment was used primarily by royalty, the clergy for exclusive liturgical vestments and the
wealthy. Spain, introduced the color to Japan where it was met with great enthusiasm. From there, newer, less expensive methods of producing the pigment have made it widely available but Mexico and Peru both continue to use the traditional method of production for those wishing to use the natural product.
This exhibit is only in Santa Fe through September 16 but check it out on the internet to get a better sense of this amazing history.
Shades of red are prominently featured in fall collections. Find your shade and enjoy!
Images from Saks.