The Red of Painters


Best of 2017

We’re away until January 3, but we’re reposting some of our favorite pieces from 2017. Enjoy your holiday!

Boris Grigoriev, Entrez!, 1913. Moscow, Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts. © FineArtImages/Leemage.


For the most part, painters have always loved red, from the Paleolithic period to the most contemporary. Very early on, red’s palette came to offer a variety of shades and to favor more diverse and subtle chromatic play than any other color. In red, artists found a means to construct pictorial space, distinguish areas and planes, create accents, produce effects of rhythm and movement, and highlight one figure or another. On walls, canvas, wood, or parchment, the música of reds was always more pregnant, more cadenced, and more resonant than others. Moreover, painting treatises and manuals are not mistaken; it is always with regard to red that they are most long-winded and offer the greatest number of recipes. For a long time, it was also the chapter on reds that began the exposition on pigments useful to painters. That was already the case in Pliny’s Natural History, which had more to say on red than on any other color. And the same is true for the collections of the medieval recipes intended for illuminators and in the treatises on painting printed in Venice in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. It was not until the century of the Enlightenment that in certain works—most often written by art theoreticians and not painters themselves—the chapter on blues would precede the one on reds and offer a greater number of suggestions.