The Color Red: A Brief History

Red is an extreme color, and is recognized as a color that represents passion, love, seduction, violence, danger, and anger. Red is one of the primary colors of light and can vary from light pink to dark maroon. This color is also one of the few colors that represents both spectrums of emotions. Red represents the devil to some people, but in other cultures one would wear red on their wedding day.  

This color goes back to the prehistoric ages, and is one of the first colors to be used by humans. Cave art was made with red ochre and it is believed that early humans used this color to conjure their fertility. Red ochre gets its reddish color from the mineral hematite, which is an anhydrous iron oxide. Another common belief during the Neolithic times was that the color red had protective powers. Animals, warriors, and their weapons were covered in red paint, or in the blood of slaughtered animals to protect them during war. During the Roman Empire, gladiators drank the blood of their dying adversaries to take over their strength. And In Germany, during the middle ages, red bed clothes were used to project women from illnesses, fever, and miscarriages.   

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Red also has strong religious symbolism. In Greek Mythology the God of War, Mars, is depicted covered in red paint in honor of his achievements. In the Catholic religion, cardinals wear red to represent their devotion to the church and to symbolize that they would shed their own blood for God – thus the color ‘cardinal red’ is famously named after them. During the French Revolution, red became a symbol of liberty and personal freedom. Many of the radical parties wore red caps and painted their guillotines red. Throughout the years, this color was common in political parties and social movements. In the mid-19th century, red became the color of Socialism to represent strength and dominance.

Progressing through the 19th century, the use of red was a way to show emotions, especially in art. As an example, Vincent Van Gogh used reds and greens in his Night Cafe (1888) to represent the ‘terrible human passions.’ Artists such as Henri Matisse, Mark Rothko, and Renoir incorporated red for emotional impact as well.  In our culture today, red is mostly seen as a color that attracts viewers. Red dresses, red lipstick, red carpet; the color is used to grab attention, which is why it’s also used on fire trucks and road signs. No matter how it is used, it is a powerful color that never goes unnoticed and has the ability to change the way you feel when you wear or look at it!