Review of Red: The History of a Color

Red: The History of a Color
by Michel Pastoureau; translated by Jody Gladding

Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ, 2017

216 pp., illus. col. $28.00

ISBN: 978-0-691-17277-4

Reviewed by
Giovanna Costantini
July 2017

Red, the color of fire, fertility, blood and sacrifice, of passion, privilege, lust and revolution remains today a powerful emotive agent, its complex semiology a testament to the color’s universal symbolism and favor throughout the ages. Michel Pastoureau’s stunning new book Red: The History of a Color, his most recent addition to a series on the cultural history of color, continues an interdisciplinary investigation into the social history of color, one that takes as its premise the position that color is a socially constructed concept, one whose vocabulary, codes and values, its organization, and uses have been determined by distinct and identifiable cultures. As such, Pastoureau’s narrative extends beyond color’s physical properties as a component of light or physiological and psychological metrics to social customs, technical applications, religious and moral codes, artistic creations, symbolic, and lexical expressions in areas that merge at times with chemistry, economics, trade, and technology. The author is particularly qualified to offer such perspectives, having conducted seminars on the subject at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales for over 30 years.

Arranged chronologically, the text spans subjects from Paleolithic cave paintings to Chinese parade photos, moving from the Hall of Bulls of Spain’s Altamira caves of circa. 15,000 BCE to Rothko’s abstractions of the twentieth century. He examines the composition of various pigments from plants and minerals and other organisms, such as hematite used in Pharaonic Egypt; the herb madder, popular during the Roman Empire; and kermes, a dye extracted from certain insects in the Mediterranean. This survey of red’s usage in antiquity includes descriptions of the technical means used to transform elemental ores, animal, or vegetable matter into pigments; dying processes; and artisanal practices as well as symbolic functions associated with funerary customs (red ochre burials), ritual observances (the rooster’s red comb used in divination) and myth (association with the vital powers of Dionysus). According to Pliny’s Natural History, red was reputed to come from the blood of dragons and elephants. Although the earliest history of dying remains speculative, cloth fragments recovered in tombs from the 3rd to the 1st millennium BCE provide evidence of materials such as henna, murex, and carthamus traded throughout the Mediterranean basin. Roman Purple (purpura), a variation of red, was extracted from the glands of shellfish collected from Phoenicia and reserved for the highest imperial authority, known from the expression “to take the purple.” Expressly proscribed for those of lesser status, Suetonius recounts that the son of King Juba II of Macedonia was put to death for being seen in Rome dressed entirely in purple. Ancient writers also commented upon red’s usage in cosmetics, as in Ovid’s remark “Your looks are aided by a dissembled art,” or Martial’s remark to Galla “Your face does not sleep with you.”

Pastoureau devotes the core of his book to the Middle Ages, spanning the 6th to the 14th centuries wherein he traces red’s liturgical usage in Christianity, whose principal association was that of sacrifice, redemptive blood/wine, and the militant Church triumphant emblazoned as a red cross upon the banners of Richard the Lionhearted and other knights of the Crusades. As the first color of heraldry, coats of arms from the 12th to the 18th centuries incorporated red as symbols of sanguine honor, vigor, justice, charity, and courage. In Arthurian legends and chivalric romances “The lover,” according to the Dutch medievalist Johan Huizinga, “wore the colors of his lady, companions the emblem of their confraternity, parties, and servants the blazons of their lords. A medieval town,” he wrote in The Waning of the Middle Ages (1919), “did not lose itself in suburbs and factories…girded by its walls, it stood forth as a compact whole” (NY Anchor reprint, 1956, p. 10).

Pastoureau’s survey—while it extends through the modern era from connotations of sin and luxury under the Protestant Reformation to the coloristic richness of Van Eyck, Uccello, Rubens, and de la Tour; from Rococo’s rosy complexions to the scientific discoveries of Robert Boyle and Isaac Newton; and from political associations of French Republicanism to the Bolshevik Revolution and Mao’s Little Red Book—explores red’s socio-historic codings among predominantly pre-modern Western societies. This emphasis on comparatively homogeneous cultures whose common perceptions and traditions can be inscribed as color, encompasses attitudes and values that may in many respects be relativistic to contemporaneity. For this reason, Pastoureau’s more focused scrutiny of dye stuffs in antiquity approximates the broader medium-specific approach of studies such as Elena Phipps’ Cochineal Red (2010) that is based in textiles, for it extends the ethnographic reach of color history to more widely dispersed geographic regions and trade networks active across the globe.

As Pastoureau’s other volumes in the series (Blue, 2001; Black, 2009; and Green, 2014), Red is addressed to generalists for whom its anecdotal history and sumptuous illustrations provide abundant reading pleasure. It offers an engaging panorama of red’s cultural significance throughout the ages, one that aids the iconographic study and appreciation of art as social history, traced as handprints upon a cavern wall.