A partial view of a ceramic dish with a deep red glaze and crisp, white border against a black background.

At A Glance

A color of vitality, passion, good fortune, and celebration, red has undeniable energy. It catches our eye and stirs our blood, forcing us to take notice. From glittering stones to ruddy earth, from insects to minerals, learn about various ways that people have made and understood red through examples drawn from across the museum’s collections.

Making Red

Several metal compounds (that include iron, mercury, or lead) form commonly used historic colored pigments. These compounds may be found, mined, or produced. Iron compounds in earth pigments can have different colors. Red iron earths are readily found or can be manufactured and have been discovered in many applications, including pottery and paints.

Similarly, mercury-based pigments are made from grinding the red mineral cinnabar. Synthetic versions have long been produced and are referred to as vermilion. This deep red pigment, though toxic, was used in burial ceremonies, incorporated in lacquers, and adorns paintings and documents.

2 blocks of red material seen under magnification
Dry process vermilion thin section, low magnification (left) and high magnification (right). Image courtesy of Conservation and Scientific Research, National Museum of Asian Art, Smithsonian Institution

The bright red of the rising sun in this work is likely the mineral cinnabar, a common ore of oxidized mercury found in veins associated with thermal hot springs or other types of volcanic activity. Once processed as a pigment, cinnabar is referred to as vermilion, though the chemical composition is identical. Until the discovery of cadmium red in the early twentieth century, vermilion was one of the most widely used red pigments around the globe, offering the most vibrant hue.

Auspicious Symbols: Crane, Rising Sun and Peach is an object in the NMAA collection.
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Auspicious Symbols: Crane, Rising Sun and Peach

Dressing and adorning sacred images remains a regular part of ritual practice in Nepal. Painting a sculpture’s surface was one such way to confer honor and respect for a deity. Scientific examination reveals multiple layers of pigment on Avalokiteshvara. Although the surface layer is more recent, the presence of cinnabar (mercury)—a mineral that is no longer used—in the underlying red indicates that the sculpture has been repainted over the course of many generations.

Bodhisattva White Avalokiteshvara (Amoghapasha Lokeshvara) is an object in the NMAA collection.
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Bodhisattva White Avalokiteshvara (Amoghapasha Lokeshvara)

While red lead has a naturally forming mineral equivalent (minimum), it was manufactured far more commonly for use as a pigment. In general, lead compounds were heated under conditions favorable to produce the desired colored material and minimizing the formation of others.

The actor Ichikawa Sadanji I poses dramatically against a wall of flames in a scene from the historical play The Kōshū War Strategy and the Takeda Clan Preparing for Battle. He holds a short sword by the blade, indicating that he intends to die by suicide rather than be taken alive by the enemy. The dramatic composition of this print recreates the tension of a kabuki play. Fire was a frequent threat in daily life in nineteenth-century Japan. Lead oxide in the pigment gives the illusion of smoky flames, and glittering mica on the sword blade shows the attention paid to printing.

Ichikawa Sadanji I as Akiyama Kii-no-kami, the scene of flames (yakiuchi no ba) from the series <em>New plays of the Meiji-za (Meiji-za shin-kyogen)</em> 「明治座新狂言 焼討之場 秋山紀伊守 市川左団次」 is an object in the NMAA collection.
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Ichikawa Sadanji I as Akiyama Kii-no-kami, the scene of flames (yakiuchi no ba) from the series New plays of the Meiji-za (Meiji-za shin-kyogen) 「明治座新狂言 焼討之場 秋山紀伊守 市川左団次」

Red copper oxide or cuprite is found as a degradation product on bronzes and forms by the reaction of the copper from the bronze and the atmosphere.

Perhaps inspired by the color of the flower in nature, deep copper-red pigment boldly outlines each floral petal on the body of this ewer in the shape of a lotus bud. It also accents sculptural details such as the tiny frog on the handle and the small boys holding lotus buds portrayed around the vessel’s neck. Celadons painted in red are exceptionally rare, as obtaining the desired color during the firing process was notoriously difficult. This example was no doubt produced at a kiln that was patronized by social elites.

Plants and animals can also be sources of reds used in artworks. Madder root and safflower each may have their color extracted, purified, and prepared for use in objects such as textiles and prints. The conditions in which the dye or lake is prepared can change the final color. Scale insects (such as lac and cochineal) are another source. Such insects were harvested, with the red color extracted and prepared for use as a pigment or dye. When possible, determining the colorants used in artworks can shed light on historical trade routes due to the limited native habitat of these insects.

a number of dried, reddish insects
Dried cochineal insects. Image courtesy of Conservation and Scientific Research, National Museum of Asian Art, Smithsonian Institution

Red also occurred naturally in the form of precious and semi-precious stones, such as rubies, garnets, spinels, and carnelians. Prized for their color and rarity, they were valuable gifts and were often worn by elites or used to adorn luxury items.

Eye-Catching Red

Rubrication, the practice of writing portions of a text in red ink, helped visually underscore certain information and became particularly common in European manuscripts after the seventh century. Red was sometimes used for the angular Kufic script in in copies of the Qur’an made between the eighth and eleventh centuries CE to indicate vocalization; it stood out next to black- or brown-inked calligraphy. Red was also commonly used in the paste for the inked seals that were added to finished works of Chinese painting or calligraphy; it contrasted against black ink writing and images. The seal might give the name of the artist or his studio, the collector, or other private individuals, and it occasionally expresses a favorite brief saying.

Because red contrasts so distinctly against neutral colors, it was a common decorative addition on ceramics across cultures throughout history.

In the tenth century, eastern Iran and present-day Uzbekistan became the center for the production of some of the most remarkable epigraphic ceramic wares with moralizing proverbs in Arabic. These vessels are important not only for their message but also for their artistic and technical sophistication. The buff-colored earthenware body was covered with white slip (a semi-fluid colored clay) to create the ground color. For the design of this particular bowl, the artist used ochre and black-colored slips, and then followed up with a transparent glaze.

Carved lacquer was highly esteemed at the fifteenth-century Ming court. Some of the most popular designs featured dense floral imagery and shared an overall sensibility with contemporary textiles, as well as with some decorated porcelains, especially those with reserve painted images. Textile designs appear to have influenced many Ming court arts. The rich red surface of the lacquer here suggests careful polishing to create a mellow effect. A bottom layer of mustard-yellow lacquer seen here is also observed in many early and mid-Ming lacquers. The motif of a mythical qilin—an animal with composite features, including the scales of a dragon and the hooves of a deer—symbolized a wish for the birth of sons. Associating the image with peonies, the flower of nobility and wealth, added a layer of meaning that was a portent for the sons to have great character and be successful.

Round covered box, wood with thick red lacquer is an object in the NMAA collection.
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Round covered box, wood with thick red lacquer

Swirling in distinct patterns of deep vermilion–colored red slip across the surface of this vessel, the spiral was a popular design for people of the ancient Ban Chiang culture in what is now northeastern Thailand. Pots like this one were ceremonially buried in gravesites along with the deceased. Sometimes they were laid intact over the body, or they were placed near the head and feet. It is not known whether they also served purposes in life or if they were made specifically to honor the dead.

Vessel on pedestal foot is an object in the NMAA collection.
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Vessel on pedestal foot

Perceiving Red

Love, passion, importance—red carries many positive associations today, and has throughout history. In ancient Egypt, pharaohs were depicted in red due to its association with royalty and passage through the afterlife. In China, red is auspicious—associated with life-generating energy (the sun, blood, and fire)—and is the color of celebrations and prosperity.

Like many ancient legends, “Writing a Poem on a Crimson Leaf” has several versions, each with minor differences in detail. The main story takes place in the ninth century during the Tang dynasty (618–907) and concerns a court lady who writes a love poem on a red leaf. She then sets it afloat on the waterway that flows out of the palace. The man who finds the red leaf writes a poem in which he echoes his own longing for love, and he sends the leaf and the poems floating back to the palace. Of course, the same court lady chances upon the leaf and cherishes its poems. Later freed from her obligations to the imperial court, the lady is allowed to marry. On her wedding night, she happily discovers that her groom is the very man who wrote a love poem on her treasured red leaf. “Writing a poem on a crimson leaf” became a metaphor in Chinese literature to describe a happy marriage destined by fate.

Writing a Poem on a Crimson Leaf is an object in the NMAA collection.
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Writing a Poem on a Crimson Leaf

In the Ming dynasty (1368–1644), red connoted authority and status. The dynastic founder, Zhu Yuanzhang, was a rebel in the Red Turban movement when he established the Ming. He located his power base in the south, which was symbolically represented by red, and his surname, Zhu, means “vermilion.” His successors continued to be attracted to red and ordered ceramics of different sizes, shapes, and hues of red for their palaces. To create these vermilion dragons that emblemize the emperor, potters added iron oxide to the overglaze enamel.

Dish with design of dragons and clouds is an object in the NMAA collection.
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Dish with design of dragons and clouds

In China, red is a symbol of the sun. The Ming emperors required red porcelain vessels for annual ceremonies at the Altar of the Sun, one of the four main imperial altars. This particular hue is the most challenging porcelain glaze color. The imperial potters had to meticulously control every aspect of glazing, firing, and cooling, including adding just a tiny amount of copper oxide to the glaze, to achieve such a sublime red. The impression of a velvety surface results from millions of unbroken bubbles trapped in the glaze.

Dish with copper-red glaze, and a Xuande mark in cobalt oxide on the base is an object in the NMAA collection.
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Dish with copper-red glaze, and a Xuande mark in cobalt oxide on the base

Learn more about this stunning example of a Xuande copper red–glazed porcelain through a conversation between curator Jan Stuart and Smarthistory’s Steven Zucker:

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Video | “Red so rare it was lost to time, a ritual Ming dish” | View on YouTube

Red is still associated with festivities and happiness in Chinese culture today. Learn more about Lunar New Year, when families decorate windows with red paper cuttings and adorn doors with couplets expressing auspicious wishes. Watch and learn how Chinese paper cuttings are made, from the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage:

an older woman holds up an elaborate red paper cutting against a wall.

Video | “Chinese Paper Cutting” | View on YouTube

Red can carry more negative associations as well, such as with warfare, rage, and destruction. The color of blood, there is a visceral quality to red that resonates uniquely with the human psyche. Haunted by the traces that the human body leaves behind, contemporary artist Chiharu Shiota’s 2015 installation “Over the Continents” amassed personal memories through an accumulation of nearly four hundred individual shoes. Collected by the artist, each shoe came with a note from the donor describing lost individuals and past moments. Almost four miles of red yarn wrapped around the shoes and attached to a single point in the museum’s Sackler pavilion, evoking the artist’s attention to the fundamental ties that connect humans to one another and the world.

Many different shoes all set out and tied with red string leading back to a point not seen in the image
Detail, Installation view of Dialogue From DNA at Manggha, Centre of Japanese Art and Technology, Krakow, Poland by Chiharu Shiota; 2004; photo by Sunhi Mang

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