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.
A view of the exhibition “Mexican Red, the Cochineal in Art,” at the Fine Arts Palace in Mexico City. In Europe, this color became increasingly associated with the projection of power in the 17th and 18th centuries. Credit Alfredo Estrella/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
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.
The cochineal, the Mexican insect that is the source of the dye, on display as part of the exhibition in Mexico City. Credit Marco Ugarte/Associated Press
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.”
Van Gogh’s “Bedroom in Arles, Third Version” (end of September 1889), which uses cochineal. The artist likened the color to the “red of wine.” Credit Musée d'Orsay, Paris
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.
A jar of dye and some red yarn colored by cochineal, part of the Mexico City show. Credit Marco Ugarte/Associated Press
Louis XIV ordered the upholstery of the chairs and the royal bed curtains at Versailles to be dyed with cochineal. So rich was the trade that cochineal was second only to silver as the most valuable export from Spain’s American colonies, more profitable than even gold, according to scholars cited by Mr. Roque.
He argues that painters rapidly adopted cochineal to “obtain tonalities as rich, as saturated, as brilliant” as the fabrics that dyers were producing in the ports of early modern Europe.
The first European work of the show here is Tintoretto’s “Christ Carried to the Tomb,” produced in the 1550s, in which the painter, the son of a Venetian dyer, used cochineal for the dense, almost tactile images of the fabric worn by the mourners.
“Bonjour, Monsieur Gauguin” (1889), by Gauguin, is on display in “Mexican Red,” though its use of cochineal has not been confirmed. Credit Hammer Museum, Los Angeles
Titian began to use cochineal in his works after the middle of the century, as did Veronese, whose “Martyrdom of Saint Justine” is in the exhibition.
Like the Venetians, the painters who adopted cochineal most consistently worked in port cities. Mr. Roque points to Diego Velázquez and Francisco de Zurbarán in Seville, and Rubens, Van Dyck and Rembrandt in Antwerp and Amsterdam.
Zurbarán’s “Penitent Magdalene,” from the mid-17th century, shows its subject leaning on a table that is draped with a richly patterned red brocade. In the exhibition, a fragment of similar Spanish brocade is displayed below, vivid evidence of cochineal’s link to both fabric and painting.
The geographer José Antonio Alzate’s “Plane With Scale and Orientation Mexico City,” a map using cochineal, 1762-1772. Credit Franz Mayer Museum, Mexico CIty
Velázquez is represented by a portrait of the archbishop Fernando Valdés from the National Gallery in London, in which the subject is framed by a lush red curtain that symbolizes both his spiritual and temporal power.
In Mexico, too, the painters of New Spain incorporated cochineal into their work, and the exhibition features several examples, including a luminous “Virgin of Guadalupe,” by Cristóbal de Villalpando, who painted her clothed in deep purple, and his “Marriage of Mary and St. Joseph,” where he draped her in a soft pink dress.
The writer Amy Butler Greenfield has described how the Spanish hid the origin of cochineal to help preserve the crown’s monopoly on it. But by the 18th century, there was no shortage of information on its preparation. In Mexico, José Antonio de Alzate, a geographer and naturalist, published an extensive treatise on cochineal, which is also on display, along with his map of Mexico City, marked with the dye.
The British, too, were captivated by cochineal, which was used to dye the wool cloth for army officers’ uniforms. As early as 1648, the English priest and traveler Thomas Gage wrote, “The English is like their sun, which is red, and so do and will affect to wear scarlet, as long as any cochineal is found in the Indies.”
The English fascination endured: Van Dyck portrayed Prince Charles Louis wearing crimson at the court of Charles I about 1637, and more than a century later, Joshua Reynolds painted Sir James Hodges, a London official, in authoritative red.
Van Dyck’s oil portrait of King Charles Louis, circa 1637, using a deep crimson. Credit Collection of Pérez Simón, Mexico City
There was cochineal in J. M. W. Turner’s paint box, which is on display. By then, the dye had lost its association with power. Later, the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists used it to suggest shade and light. A stroke hints at the curve of a muscle in a Cézanne drawing of bathers. Renoir painted Mme. León Clapisson seated on a red chair against a scarlet-tinged wall, perhaps in an oblique reference to the portraits of the past.
Van Gogh, more than anyone, explored the properties of cochineal. The show features one of the three paintings known as “The Bedroom,” which he painted at Arles near the end of his life. The cochineal in the original walls and doors, which he described to Theo as lilac and violet, and in the warm rose of the floor have faded, but his intent persists.
“In short,” van Gogh wrote, “looking at the painting should rest the mind, or rather, the imagination.”
Mexican Red, the Cochineal in Art
Through Feb. 4 at the Palace of Fine Arts, Mexico City