Colors used in dyes and paints in earlier centuries came from various organic and inorganic sources, and this particular red comes from an insect. An exhibit with this “Mexican red,” highlighting the relationship between nature’s sources, artists and their patrons, strikes us as as good a reason as any to curate a show:
MEXICO CITY — Along with silver and gold, the first ships that sailed from the New World after the Spanish Conquest carried another treasure: a natural dye that produced a red so intense that European artists quickly embraced it as their own.
The trade in this dye reaped vast riches for the Spanish crown and supplied the crimson palette that would color the sacred and secular art of Europe for more than three centuries.
An exhibition that runs through Feb. 4 at this city’s Palace of Fine Arts, “Mexican Red, the Cochineal in Art,” traces the journey of the color from the highlands of pre-Hispanic Mesoamerica to Europe. There, it became increasingly associated with the projection of power in the 17th and 18th centuries. Cochineal fell into decline in the 19th century, as synthetic dyes were introduced, but was sought out later by the Impressionists.
Based on a 2014 symposium organized by the museum, the exhibition and its voluminous catalog reflect much of the scholarship around cochineal. “We hope that it has a resonance not just for the works of art,” Miguel Fernández Félix, museum director at the Palace of Fine Arts, said of the show. “We are talking about economics here; we will talk about society and culture.”
From the Venetian masters Titian and Tintoretto to van Gogh, who blended it into many shades in dozens of paintings, artists sought out the properties of Mexican red, which is extracted from the tiny cochineal insect. Carmine, van Gogh wrote to his brother Theo in 1885, using another name for cochineal, is the “red of wine and is warm and lively like wine.”
The cochineal insect, a small parasite that feeds on the prickly pear cactus, was cultivated domestically in Mexico and Peru in pre-Hispanic times. The female was dried and crushed to extract the red carminic acid, and additives of different acidity produced shades that ranged from light pink to a deep purple. (The dye is still in use.)
The exhibition begins with a piece of cloth dating to 300 B.C., its red tint still visible. The dye was used in pre-Hispanic illustrated codices and in the codices produced around the time of the 1521 Spanish Conquest.
Spanish chronicles of the conquest marvel at the vivid colors of cochineal dyestuff for sale in the Aztec capital, Tenochtitlán, and the first shipment soon left for Spain. By midcentury, as the curator Georges Roque writes in the show’s catalog, cochineal was being transported in bulk to Seville.
Because cochineal was the source of a more intense and lasting red than any of the pigments then available, demand soared for it as a dye for sumptuous European silks, velvets and tapestries…
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