Space to Think, a new book celebrating ten years of the Dublin Review of Books More Information 

A Study of Scarlet

Catherine Marshall

Red: The History of a Colour, by Michel Pastoureau, Princeton University Press, 216 pp, $39.95, ISBN: 978-0691172774

Ingmar Bergman’s film Cries and Whispers dramatically disrupted his signature black and white palette. All Bergman could offer in explanation for the change was, “All our interiors are in red, of various shades. Don’t ask me why, it must be so, I don’t know … the whole thing is something internal … I have pictured the inside of the soul as a moist membrane in shades of red.” Even the customary black used to divide film sequences is replaced with red in Cries and Whispers. Michel Pastoureau employs the same dividing formula in Red: The History of a Colour, but without the visceral impact or ambiguity that surrounded the colour for Goethe, Bergman, Freud, Mao Zedong and others.

Even Anne Carson’s verse novel Autobiography of Red suggests a life for the colour that transcends Pastoureau’s prosaic history, linking it to Greek mythology, frustrated passion and homoeroticism in contemporary Canada. Like Bergman’s film the “autobiography” associates the colour with a sense of the primal, of inexplicable forces beyond our control. In attempting to give a chronological account of how the colour came to be produced, valued and used in Western society since the days of the cavemen, Pastoureau falls back on a formula that worked for his earlier books about black, blue and green, but seems oblivious to the uncontainable energies that make the concept of this book so exciting. You cannot contain “red”. Pastoureau does point out that “red is an ocean” and the historian risks drowning in it. So he confines himself to a “few leading threads (the lexicon, clothing, art, fields of learning, symbols)”. Yet his heroic attempts to deal with those threads, fascinating as they are, fail to acknowledge that mysterious power that Bergman could work with but not rationalise.

Sadly they fail on another count too: it is simply not possible to deal with the symbolic uses of the colour – even if we agree about what it is – in Western society over thousands of years, whether in flags and heraldic banners, road signs or the French cap of liberty, in just a few image-filled pages. The symbolism of red is so undermined by contradictory practices that it is virtually impossible to claim it for either good or evil as the author attempts to do. The colour of prostitution, and the devil, of avarice, lust and sin, it is also the colour of courtly love tokens, of royalty, judges and cardinals, of Christ’s blood and therefore of redemption. Pastoureau barely refers to the use of red in advertising, perhaps the most contradictory field of all.

Clothing is easier to deal with and the sections on textiles that include descriptions of harvesting pigment from the roots of three-year-old madder plants in Ancient Rome, or evading smugglers to bring valuable cochineal from South America to the textile industries of Europe in the eighteenth century are fascinating. It seems incredible that there was such competition among the dyers licensed to produce either blue or red fabrics in fifteenth century Florence that their working schedules had to be regulated to prevent them contaminating the waters of the Arno on each other, never mind the fish and the food chain, or that the madder merchants in Strasbourg insisted that the devil be blue in their stained glass window in the cathedral in order to discredit the colour. Even in a world of egocentric presidents it seems unthinkable that the son of a visiting king should have been executed in Caligula’s Rome for wearing purple, the exclusive colour of the emperor and his family, or that Horace could mock the nouveau riche of his day for wiping the table with a purple cloth.

The book’s best pages deal with the language of red. This is not just limited to the different meanings for the perceiver of red, rouge, purple, vermilion, scarlet, crimson, pink and so on, and how and where these names for colours entered different languages. Red was the most frequently referenced colour in the Bible, for example. But Pastoureau is excellent in tracking down the progression of red from a noun to an adjective, as a “magnificent cloth” in Hebrew becomes “pannus rubeus” in the Middle Ages (a “scarlet” cloth by the seventeenth century) and what was “royal clothing” for the Greeks becomes “vestis purpurea”. In seventeenth century France and Germany the words “rouge” and “rot” became adverbs to signify “very” or “strongly” as in “cet home est rouge grand” for “that man is very tall”.

Although he insists that this is not an art history, art is another of Pastoureau’s “threads”. Beyond a grasp of the production processes and the social uses of colours, he appears not to have any knowledge of how painters obey and disobey rules as aesthetics dictate. He lists certain artists as loving the colour but offers no evidence of this, since the use of red clothing in their paintings may be just as validly attributed to their patron’s tastes as their own. He has a tendency to make claims for the paintings he chooses as illustrations that are irrelevant to his discussion and, at worst, actually misleading. Thus he describes a portrait by Van Eyck as “one of the strangest portraits in all of Flemish painting”, despite the fact that its composition is entirely within the set pattern for Flemish portraits at the time, while its execution is weak enough to cast doubts on the attribution to Van Eyck. He sees Rembrandt as a Calvinist painter and therefore restricted in his use of red (banned by Calvin in Geneva), but Rembrandt’s use of red and red/gold as a suffusing background colour is legendary, while his bohemian domestic life is eloquent of his attitude to Calvinism. Pastoureau dismisses nineteenth century notions of warm and cold colours as pure convention, yet even the most superficial look at Constable’s landscapes prove the power of a tiny passage of red to draw the eye, while the surrounding blues and greens disappear into the distance. The Impressionists knowingly exploited the science of the colour spectrum, bringing colour alive as never before, but they firmly believed in the theories of warm and cold. Perhaps that is why Pastoureau ignores them altogether. As he does Kandinsky, whose book On the Spiritual in Art has much to say about the properties of colour. Dismissing green as bourgeois, Kandinsky says “The unbounded warmth of red has not the irresponsible appeal of yellow, but rings inwardly with a determined and powerful intensity. It glows in itself, maturely, and does not disturb its vigour aimlessly.” Artists may not be scientific but they have been influential and should not be ignored.

Despite these misgivings, Pastoureau is correct to claim that “It is society that makes the colour, that gives it its vocabulary and its definitions, that constructs its codes and values, that organises its uses and determines its stakes.” But society is an unwieldy and unstable force, like the colour red itself. This history can never, therefore, be definitive.


Catherine Marshall is an art historian and curator, formerly founding head of collections at the Irish Museum of Modern Art and Co-Editor of Twentieth Century, Vol. V,  Art and Architecture of Ireland, published by the Royal Irish Academy and Yale University Press, 2014.