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The Red that Colored the World

Red, with its brilliant hue and broad cultural history, has inspired artists’ imaginations and seduced viewers for millennia.

Artists and dyers for centuries strived to find the color source to rival the best reds of nature, and to express the spirit, symbolism and sustenance of life. Their quest ended in the Aztec marketplaces of 16th-century Mexico, where Spanish explorers encountered the American cochineal bug. The bug created an unparalleled range of reds with potent economic value. Its ensuing global spread launched an epic story of empire and desire that pushed art, culture and trade to the edge of the unknown.

Organized by the Museum of International Folk Art in Santa Fe, The Red that Colored the World translates the cochineal story into three dimensions, following the precious bug juice and its use in art from Mexico and South America, to Europe, the U.S. and beyond. Highlighting textiles, sculpture, paintings, decorative arts, clothing and more—the exhibition explores the history of cochineal and the seductive visual nature of red. The objects reflect the unique international uses of color, revealing its role in the creative process and the motivations of artists in their choice of materials.

Pre-Columbian weavers used cochineal. So did El Greco, Tintoretto, Rembrandt and Van Gogh. Hispano saint makers and Navajo weavers of the 18th– and 19th-century American Southwest followed suit, as did Spanish design icon Mariano Fortuny. Synthetic dyes eclipsed natural sources in the late 19th century, but cochineal’s cachet never completely waned. The exhibition follows the story to today, where cochineal has resurged as a popular colorant in the revival of traditional artisanal crafts in the southwestern United States. Cochineal and the color red remain hot commodities in cosmetics and commercial products, contemporary art, fashion and design, and other expressions of popular culture.

A major award-wining publication, A Red Like No Other, delves deeper into cochineal’s visual mosaic with original contributions from international scholars whose writings on cochineal’s history, science, economics, and use in art will appeal to scholars and general interest readers alike.

Listen to a recent NPR broadcasts about the exhibition:

PBS News Hour

Texas Standard broadcast