The insect which dyed the world red

The red dye extracted from the cochineal was admired by Europeans and Asians alike

The red dye extracted from the cochineal was used by several European painters - Photo: Diana Sigala/EFE
English 09/01/2018 12:06 Mexico City EFE Actualizada 12:06

Featuring works by Vincent Van Gogh, Tintoretto, among other renowned artists, the National Palace of Fine Arts presents the exhibition “Rojo mexicano: la grana cochinilla en el arte,” (Mexican Red, the Carmine Cochineal in Art) the first exhibition dedicated to the artistic uses of this insect.

“More than showcasing a painter or an era, the exhibition follows the essence of the color; that side of art you usually don't notice, the raw material,” explained Miguel Ángel González, historian at the National Palace of Fine Arts.

The insect this dye is made from, the Dactylopius coccus, was originally domesticated by the native people of Pre-Hispanic Mexico but biologically, “it's a plague which ends prickly pears.”


After the Spanish conquest, the insect was exported to Spain to be distributed across Europe. Given the quality of the dye you could make from the cochineal, the “Carmine of the Indies” replaced other European dyes and became the color which died “powerful” textiles of the political, religious, and civilian scenes.

“The royal palaces of France and Spain had full rooms died in red, the so-called 'red rooms' and the decoration was made from cochineal; these red rooms were the most luxurious,” said González.

The 75 artworks featured in the exhibition were lent by 16 national collections and 11 international ones, and include works such as Van Gogh's "Bedroom in Arles" (1889) and Tintoretto's "Deposition of Christ".


This exhibit concludes with a sample of Japanese stamps which, after being analyzed, it was determined they were painted with a dye extracted from the cochineal.

“What Europeans and Asians admired was the dye,” states González.

Currently, cochineal is being produced in 15 states of Mexico, yet the largest production can be found in Perú, Bolivia, Chile, and the Canary Islands.

The exhibition will remain in the Palace of Fine Arts until February 4.