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  • Writer's pictureAccessible Art History

History of Color: Red

Welcome back to the Accessible Art History blog! This week, I’m debuting a new series! Recently, I started thinking about what is the most important foundational element when it comes to art. After some careful thought, I decided that it was color. Each one can invoke emotion and convey a variety of meaning. So, I thought it would be interesting to examine the main colors, their history, symbolism, and examples! Naturally, I had to start with red. So, to learn more, keep on reading!


Red is one of the oldest colors in world history. In fact, it is the first color that the human eye can register, after black and white. The oldest evidence that archaeologists have discovered for the use of red is the use of ocher (clay infused with rust) in a cave in South Africa. They estimate that it was inhabited 170,000 years ago!

As history moved on, different materials and even animals were used to create red pigment. We see kermes and cochineal bugs being ground up and used to dye clothes and even make early cosmetics! The Romans mined cinnabar (a mercury ore) to create a vibrant, rich, red that still retains its pigment 2000 years later. Nearly every civilization across the world used red to dye clothes, create art, and symbolize aspects of society.

One of the most popular things that red symbolizes is love. Hearts, roses, Valentine’s Day, you can’t seem to escape the color when talking about romance! In fact, brides from Ancient Rome to modern day China wear red on their wedding day to symbolize love and happiness. In some cases, red can also represent passion, like the heat from a torrid affair.

Red can also be used to symbolize power. In fact, 77% of the world’s flags utilize the color to project their power to other nations. Throughout history rulers have dressed in red to symbolize their status. For example, emperors of the Zhou, Han, Jin, Song and Ming dynasties of China, Charlemagne, and Richard II of England all wore red in official portraits and ceremonies.

In addition, cardinals of the Catholic church (and even the pope on occasions) are known for their red uniforms. This could be to symbolize the blood that Jesus spilled on the Cross, showing his power over sin. Regardless of the reasoning, red has long been the symbol of a powerful person.

Finally, the color red is often used to symbolize a big moment or emotion. A stop sign, a fire engine, break lights, these things indicate that we need to pay attention. When someone is angry, their red blood is said to boil. Red is the color of revolution, in France to communism and many places in between. It speaks to passion and depth of feeling!

Besides being one of the first colors to be used in art, red has allowed humans to show a variety of emotions through art, decoration, and clothing. This means that speaks to what makes humanity….well human.



Human hand made with Red Ochre. Pech Merle cave, France (Gravettian era, 25,000 BCE).

Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

Love Sculpture (copy New York)

Original design: Robert Indiana, 1965

Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

Emperor Gaozong of Song (1127–62 CE)

Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

The Jewish Bride

Rembrandt, 1665-69

Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons


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