The Color Red
The narrow wavelength band of pure spectral light at 625 to 740 nanometers, stimulating the color photoreceptors of the eye’s retina, produces the color perception of red. At the end of the visible spectrum of light, red ranges from the brilliant yellow-tinged scarlet to the bluish-red crimson, with variations in shade from pale pink to the dark burgundy. Made from the natural clay earth pigment of ochre, a mixture of ferric oxide and varied amounts of clay and sand, red pigment was one of the first colors used in prehistoric art.
Red, the color of blood touched by oxygen, has been associated in history with the ideas of sacrifice, courage and danger. In modern Europe and the United States, the sight of color red is associated with the ideas of heat, passion, activity, sexuality, anger, love and joy. While in many Asian countries, the color red is symbolic of the ideas of good fortune and happiness. Red placed prominently in the ceremonies of the Mayan and ancient Egyptian cultures, and later on in the Roman processions and military victory celebrations. It served as a color to show prominence and power, decorating the gates and walls of Chinese palaces and the costumes for the Renaissance nobility and wealthy.
After the Western Roman Empire fell in the 5th century, red was adopted as a color of majesty and authority. It became an important part of Catholic Church rituals, symbolizing the blood of Christ and its martyrs, and used as the robe color of its Cardinals. Used to draw the attention of viewers, it was often used in Renaissance painting as the color of the costume of Christ, the Virgin Mary, or a central figure of a scene. Layers of pigment mixed with a semi-transparent glaze allowed more light to pass through, creating the effect of a more brilliant color.
The earlier red, vermilion, was made from the powder mineral cinnabar and used widely in manuscript illumination of the Middle Ages and Renaissance paintings. Early in the 1500s, a new red appeared from Mexico, made from the tiny parasitic insect, the cochineal, which was more brilliant and worked well with textiles. With the arrival of cochineal red, painters had a rich crimson color, called carmine, that was used almost exclusively by all the great painters of the 15th and 16th centuries, including Vermeer, Rembrandt, Van Dyck and Tintoretto.
With the systematic study of color theory and the study of complementary colors in the 1800s, red was used to create specific emotions in the viewers of artworks. Vincent van Gogh avidly followed these studies. In his description of “The Night Cafe” to his brother Theo in 1888, Van Gogh wrote “I sought to express the red and green the terrible human passions. . . Everywhere it is a battle and antithesis of the most different reds and greens”. The Russian symbolist painter Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin used red in his 1912 painting “Bathing of a Red Horse” to shock viewers, provoking a furious discussion among Russian art critics. Mark Rothko used red in simple block forms on large canvases. In 1962 he painted a series of large murals of the Passion of Christ whose predominant colors were dark pink and crimson, chosen to inspire human emotions.