A review of The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin (Winter 2010), “Cochineal Red: The Art History of a Color,” 48 pages, by Elena Phipps
Textile history. . . Yawn, right? Listen to this excerpt from Elena Phipps,The same physical qualities that make each textile unique and give it beauty—fiber, dye, weave structure, texture, pattern, and design—also give it historical relevance and locate it in a specific time and place. Designs that originate in one culture may be adapted to suit other purposes in another. Some fibers are found only in one particular region; others have been traded across the globe. Artisans in one area may spin yarns in one direction while their neighbors spin in the opposite. Each textile thus carries the cultural signature of the people created it. (2)
Thus, it takes a unique training to be literate in textile history and Phipps provides us with a fascinating translation for red textiles in the Early Modern era. This quote explains, very neatly, the purpose and relevance of her field to historians. The quality of fabric, the method of production and the dye all speak to the owner and the manufacturer. Thus, the excess of sumptuous materials expensively dyed from the court at Versailles is in marked contrast to the attire of the Jacobean revolutionaries, or even that of the French nobility after the revolution. The quality of a cleric’s clothing, for example, may inform us a great deal about the man’s perspective of his profession or, too, about the wealth of his parish and benefactors.
While textiles have this promise, it is not on such a particular scale that Elena Phipps, the Senior Museum Research Scholar and Conservator at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, engages in Cochineal Red: The Art History of a Color, published by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Winter Bulletin, 2010. In this brief work, she traces the red coloring of the South American cochineal insect, Dactylopius coccus, from its origins in the New World to its eventual spread throughout the globe. To do this she marshals all the resources of the Metropolitan Museum of Art: three thousand samples were examined using high performance liquid chromatography, X-ray fluorescence spectroscopy, surface-enhanced Raman scattering and more, surveying the textiles to establish the red dye used and the material that was dyed. (3) By this means, she follows the dye from the New World to the Old World and back to the colonies and Asia. We are exposed to the political and economic history of European expansion, beginning with the New World. There is also social history related to the pursuit and distribution of New World products during colonization. All this made possible through the collaboration of scientists, archaeologists and historians.
Phipps begins with prehistory, from which time the color red has been difficult to achieve, and thus a valuable and often sacred, hue for human societies. Neolithic cave painters frequently used ocher and other earth materials to create reddish colors. In Egypt, it was a protective color—Phipps cites The Book of Death and the description of Osiris as “the lord of the red cloth”—and early textile examples are tinted with finely-ground hematite (iron oxide). (5) Other options included cinnabar, powdered mercury (mercuric sulfide) red lead and mercury pigments used in both the New World and Old World. (As Phipps alludes, the toxic nature of these pigmentations is rather poignant for New World cultures that valued human blood above all else and as a sort of currency with the gods, which explains the rituals of human sacrifices.)
The next development, which actually achieves truly red textiles, was to move to the use of animal and plant sources for dye. For example, the following plants, Madder (Rubia tinctorum), safflower (Carthamus tinctoris) and alkanet (Anchusa tinctoria) were popular in Mesopotamia, Europe and Asia. (6)
Quick Latin lesson: Rubia tinctorum: Rubia, from the Latin adjective ruber, rubra, rubrum, meaning “red”; tinctorum, from the noun tincta, tinctorum, meaning “dyed cloths, colored stuffs”—related to the verb tingo, tinxi, tinctus, tinctere, meaning “to wet, moisten, dip bathe, imbue; to soak in color, dye, tinge.” The Madder’s blooms are white (the red coloring is derived from the root) suggesting that the scientific name comes from the practical usage of the plant, for which it was better known, than from its appearance.
In South East Asia, Africa, and South America a purplish red was produced from tropical heartwoods (brazilwood, camwood). In the Mediterranean, and places under its influence, Tyrian purple was produced from mollusks in the genus Murex and was the color of the wealthy or sacred, producing either a reddish-purple or deep bluish-purple. Brilliant crimson was achieved only from a group of scale insects of the Coccoidea superfamily—kermes, lac and cochineal. Middle East examples of the dye from this insect family date back to at least 714 B.C.E. (Assyrians under Sargon II invaded Urartu (Armenia) and acquired access). (6)
It was the New World cochineal species, Dactylopius coccus, which yielded the most colorant—further improved by domestication and breeding! The species feeds on moisture and nutrients from fruit-bearing pear cactus endemic to subtropical Mexico and South America. While genetics research places the insect’s origin in South America, the New World cochineal was being used in Mexico and Peru as early as the 2nd century B.C.E. It was also a common tribute item in the medieval economy in Latin America. (10) In Mexico, the pre-conquest Matricula de tributes (Tribute List) is an early 16th century Mexican codex recording tribute owed to the Aztecs. This amatl (bark) paper folio tallied bags of dried cochineal insects in combination with the glyph for “twenty.” (12) The Mixtec of Oaxaca owed forty sacks among other goods and valuables (i.e. twenty jade belts, eight hundred quetzal feathers). The Spanish would later adopt and continue the Matricula, demanding the tribute previously owed to their supplanted predecessors. (13)
Phipps goes on to explain, from primary sources, how the cochineal was packaged and shipped to the Old World. In the Old World, she explains, the cochineal became an important trade item with restricted use as sumptuary laws dictated who may wear which colors. The Dutch became major manufacturers for the English, the Italians dyed the expensive fabrics coming in from the East, and the French crown would establish itself as a manufacturer of expensive, dyed textiles for the court at Versailles. Recipes for dyes using cochineal red were kept confidential by families and guilds as trade secrets. Salvages, or sewn “tags,” were used to identify garments as having been dyed with New World cochineal—a standard confirmed by Phipps and scientists. (32) In 1464, Pope Paul II officially changed the Cardinal Purple to red as the ancient Mediterranean dye source, the mollusk, which had dyed the clothing of the Roman emperors, the Roman Catholic higher clergy and European royalty, was suffering from over-use and had all but died out. Just in time for New World cochineal to enter onto the scene—Phipps says it was gold, silver and cochineal which built the Spanish empire. (26-7)
The British colonies, meanwhile, were forbidden from acquiring cochineal directly from neighboring American harvesters, instead having to purchase finished products from Europe. Phipps reports on one incident in which English colonists salvaged packaged cochineal from a weather-wrecked Spanish galleon to sell the dried insects to fellow colonists more cheaply than they could purchase red-dyed goods from England. (37) The Spanish-ruled natives, though harvesting the cochineal insects, were forbidden to manufacture or wear cochineal red. (26)
Spanish trade routes brought cochineal to the Southwest American Indians—they also brought lac to the same region from India and Southeast Asia, where the use of red was often limited to accents. In fact, it was not until the introduction of American cochineal to the Chinese that they made fully red garments. (38-9) Spain jealously guarded its early monopoly, protecting the insect and its food source, though it would eventually be harvested on Guatemala, Iberia and the Canary Islands. Indonesia also began using American cochineal after the Dutch East India Company introduced the prickly pear cactus and cochineal to the Dutch colony on Java, in 1602. (41) The European demand continued to increase after the kermes from Persia and Armenia were lost through the fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks. (43-4)
The work is richly informative and provides insight on Early Modern politics and economy from a unique perspective. Its brevity leads to numerous discussion points as many aspects of social history, are only touched on briefly or merely implied. While I will summarize three such points, here, I confess I am somewhat disappointed on this score after the passion and enthusiasm implied in her prologue (quoted at the beginning) where she suggested an excitement for the textile crafted by an individual’s hands. This implied personal connection is not felt throughout her exploration of the New World insect’s travels and influences.
The first of these points, is the brief anecdote relayed by the Spanish soldier, Captain Baltasar de Ocampo, who described the execution of the last living member of the Inca royal family, Tupac Amaru. As he was marched to his death Ocampo described the vivid Inca red attire worn by the king, including his Inca “crown” adorned with red fringe that hung over his forehead. Apparently, this was the lone marker of his being Inca, because Ocampo describes him as wearing a Spanish doublet! It is at this point that Phipps discusses the laws in the Spanish colonies and the sumptuary laws in Europe. (25-6) It is affecting that Tupac Amaru wore the traditional color of his rank, but could do it only in the clothing provided by his captors as they lead him to execution. In this instance, if we had the doublet, the language of the textile would have been one foreign to the man who wore it—the maker having no connection to the wearer.
Secondly, there is the almost passing reference to the Dutch supplying the English their red uniforms. Phipps says that in 1625 the Dutch employed fifty thousand people to dye woolens destined for England. Beginning, at this time and continuing until the late 19th century, the British army purchased cochineal red-dyed uniforms from the Dutch for its army. (28-9) This is instructive for students of American history who learn about young George Washington’s frustration with the habits and manners of the army under the successful British General Edward Braddock who seemed too arrogant to adapt to American realities of war (or, for that matter to grant officers’ commissions to the colonists). The very idea of camouflaging the army was entirely contrary to the point of the red coats. They were clearly meant to demonstrate the wealth and, thus, the power of the British crown. The bright scarlet coats sent a message to all opposing forces. The British army included other units in the 18th century who would wear green, a more concealing color, but the British red coat regiment was clearly intended to intimidate by being seen, marching with precision—to be a spectacle!
Europeans spread the color literally across the globe where it interacted with the local cultures creating new styles fused together by the young but active global economy. Phipps captures that sense of fashion and flair primarily with the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and some samples from other institutes. It is a beautiful way to follow world-altering historic events of such dramatic impact and variegated consequences.
RESOURCES for cochineal red:
In addition, to the secondary sources from Phipps’s work (below), there are the following video resources:
The videocast from the Metropolitan Museum of Art:
And, a series of videos put together by the Stephen F. Austin State University’s Ralph W. Steen Library on the harvesting and manufacturing process for cochineal red: Cochineal Information, Breeding Cochineal for Harvest, Spread of Cochineal from Mexico and Painting with Cochineal.
Further reading from this work:
Brunello, Franco. The Art of Dyeing in the History of Mankind.
Cardon, Dominique. Natural Dyes: Sources, Tradition, Technology, and Science.
Donkin, R. A. “The Insect Dyes of Western and West-Central Asia.”
– “Spanish Red: An Ethnogeographical Study of Cochineal and the Opuntia Cactus.”
Finaly, Victoria. Color: A Natural History of the Palette.
Forbes, R.J. Studies in Ancient Technology. Vol. 4, The Fibres and Fabrics of Antiquity . . . .
Greenfield, Amy Butler. A Perfect Red: Empire, Espionage and the Quest for the Color of Desire.
Lee, Raymond L. “Cochineal Production and Trade in New Spain,” The Americas 4, no. 4
– “American Cochineal in European Commerce, 1526-1625,” Journal of Modern History.
Phipps, Elena. “Color in the Andes: Inca Garments and 17th-Century Colonial Documents,” Dyes in History and Archaeology.
– Johanna Hecht, and Cristina Esteras Martin. The Colonial Andes: Tapestries and Silverwork, 1530-1830.