the RED that colored the world
the centuries-old appeal of cochineal
The Neutrogena Wing of the Museum of International Folk Art was hushed and humid as a crew meticulously removed the front panel of a large sealed custom-made wooden box that had been sitting in the gallery for five days getting acclimated to New Mexico. Four men carefully slid out a painted and gilded beech armchair, upholstered in worn red wool, and placed it on top of cushioned tables to be inspected. The chair was one of 28 made for Napoleon Bonaparte’s council room at Malmaison and has been in the collection of the New-York Historical Society since 1867. It is one of about 125 items that go on public display on Sunday, May 17, in an eye-popping new exhibit titled The Red That Colored the World. All the priceless pieces in the show contain cochineal, a rich red dye extracted from a tiny insect that lives on prickly pear cactus in many parts of the Americas and has been cultivated for centuries for use in textiles, paintings, sculpture, and even makeup. The first loans for the exhibit, which was six years in the making, began arriving on April 22, first from Denver and Austin and then from Mexico City and London.
The show, which takes up both the Hispanic Heritage and Neutrogena wings of the Museum of International Folk Art, includes paintings, textiles, manuscripts, furniture, sculpture, and clothing from the Americas, Europe, Asia, and Africa. Many pieces were loaned by some of the most prestigious museums and libraries in the world. It also features many examples from the museum’s own collection and the collection of its neighbor, the Museum of Spanish Colonial Art. Among the items are an El Greco —
The Savior, 1608-1614 — from the Museo del Greco in Toledo, Spain; a 16th-century manuscript from Florence; an early-19th-century British red coat from the National Army Museum in London; a red satin cloak from London’s Victoria and Albert Museum; a hooded cape from Japan that is more than 200 years old; a 19th-century Lakota headdress; and a fragment of cut silk velvet from the Metropolitan Museum of Art. From closer to home, the show includes work by santero Felix Lopez, a map of New Mexico and a
retablo by Spanish-born cartographer Bernardo Miera y Pacheco (who sculpted the altar screen for Cristo Rey Catholic Church), and a new hand-dyed red gown with beaded bodice by Navajo designer and Santa Fe resident Orlando Dugi, who ordered the color on the internet. The state’s own conservation department, which purchased special testing equipment for this project, helped confirm the presence of cochineal in the items selected for the exhibit.
A gilded beech armchair arrived with four other pieces from the East Coast in a climate-controlled truck with air-ride suspension to reduce the chance that the objects would be bounced around. As in the case of many of the loans, a courier was on hand for the uncrating. The chair was unpacked under the watchful eye of Margi Hofer, a curator from the New-York Historical Society, who had flown to Santa Fe the previous day. She carefully examined the piece, noting its condition. The chair, she said, was brought to America by Napoleon’s elder brother, Joseph, who gave it to a business associate. Historians believe Napoleon might have sat in it because of damage to the left arm, possibly from a pen knife that the military leader was known to jiggle when he was impatient.
The chair’s wool upholstery was dyed with cochineal, a humble bug that played a leading role in commerce, science, politics, and art from the pre-Columbian era to today. The dye, produced by heating, drying, and crushing the female insect, was first used in Peru, where it was perfectly suited to the country’s natural fibers, such as wool and silk. It was so valued that indigenous people paid tribute to their Aztec leaders in cochineal. By the time the Spanish arrived in Mexico, cochineal was already domesticated and was even being bred to increase production of the red juice, a centuries-old example of selective breeding.
The perfect red
As early as 1523, Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés reported to Emperor Charles V on cochineal production, which, by the late 16th century, was concentrated in Oaxaca. In 1597, English pirates stole 27 tons of this treasured produce from a Spanish convoy. Cochineal was Spain’s second-most-important export after silver until Mexico’s independence in the early 19th century.
In Europe, cochineal was used in making the luxury fabrics worn by cardinals, aristocrats, and elites and by painters and other artists to produce translucent reds in canvases. It was even used in varnishes on Stradivarius violins. The insect wasn’t identified, however, until the invention of the microscope in the late 17th century. Until then, many thought it was a worm.
The biggest producers today are Peru (which makes 85 percent of the world’s supply) and the Canary Islands, followed by Mexico, Ecuador, and Bolivia, according to A Red Like No Other: How Cochineal Colored the World (Skira Rizzoli), an exhibit-related book, edited by Carmella Padilla and Barbara Anderson, containing 32 essays by 40 international authors. Cochineal exists in New Mexico, but historically it probably wasn’t ever harvested locally to a great extent, although Native weavers often unraveled trade cloth to reuse in their work. A few years ago, Starbucks revealed that it was using the ground-up bugs to color its frappuccinos. Today cochineal is found in maraschino cherries, cheddar cheese, yogurts, ice cream, grenadine, lipstick, eye shadow, and rouge.
“Cochineal, which is so color-saturated, superseded other reds,” said Anderson, one of the show’s curators and until 2012 head of the Museum Resources Division of the Department of Cultural Affairs. “It was very expensive, but people made fortunes with it and had themselves painted wearing it. It drove political wars, piracy, and then science.” And that’s why it is a good subject for an art exhibition, she said.
Putting together the show was a complex process, with many different layers and uncertain funding. The idea goes back to 2008, when the movie Crazy Heart, starring Jeff Bridges and Maggie Gyllenhaal, was being filmed in Santa Fe. Producer Robert Duvall, who also has a part in the film, and his wife, Luciana Pedraza Duvall, wanted to have a crew party on Labor Day weekend and were looking for a venue. Marsha Bol was then director of the New Mexico Museum of Art, and her daughter was working on the crew. The couple booked the museum for the event; as a thankyou, Duvall’s wife gave Bol a copy of a book by Amy Butler Greenfield about cochineal called A Perfect Red: Empire and the Quest for the Color of Desire.
On a trip to Spain soon after that, Bol read the book and thought, Wow, this would make a great exhibit. But it wasn’t the right time. In 2009, however, when Bol became director of the Museum of International Folk Art, the idea was reignited. She approached Anderson, a Hispanic art historian formerly with the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles before her tenure at the Department of Cultural Affairs. Anderson agreed to curate the show along with Padilla, a New Mexico author and editor, and Nicolasa Chávez, the folk art museum’s in-house curator of Latino/Hispano/ Spanish colonial collections. Donna Pierce, head of the New World Art Department at the Denver Art Museum, was an early consultant. They agreed to undertake what became a monumental task of identifying art containing cochineal from around the world and bringing it to Santa Fe. “I think this is the biggest show, the most expensive show that the museum has done since the Girard Wing opened in 1982,” Bol said in a recent interview.
Layers of uncertainty
The Red Team began searching the world for the best examples of cochineal. In November 2011, Padilla and Pierce went on a scouting mission to Mexico. And in February 2012, Anderson joined them on a trip to Madrid, where they went to look at pre-Columbian
cochineal objects at the Museo de América. At the time, Anderson said, they were hoping to form a partnership with the museum, but because of economic problems in Spain, that didn’t happen. “In the end, they were very generous in lending,” Anderson said, and put the team in touch with a costume museum nearby called Museo del Traje, which is also lending to the show.
That summer the team held two “convening” sessions funded by a grant from the Chicago-based Terra Foundation for American Art. Scholars in the field were invited to Santa Fe to talk about what the exhibition might look like. Through those meetings the Red Team produced an outline for the book that will accompany the show and came up with ideas for objects that might be included.
Chavez said the curating team started with items from the folk-art collection that had already been tested for cochineal. One of her jobs was to prepare them for viewing. The team voted on each piece after considering whether it was in good enough condition for display. But the curators soon discovered that, despite all the work on cochineal, few objects could actually be documented as containing the dye.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art had tested some of its textiles, as had the National Gallery in London, but few museums had the resources to do extensive work. And museums always hesitate before testing objects, because taking a sample, albeit a tiny one, risks damaging the work. Members of the Red Team decided they only wanted to include objects that had tested positive for cochineal. However, Anderson said, “There were only a few scientists in museums who knew about how to test, and we clearly needed to enlist their help.”
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, and some other large institutions were willing to assist. All have busy conservation labs, but they helped as much as they could. Mark
MacKenzie, director of conservation
for the Department of Cultural Affairs, decided to see if he could bring the job in-house. He spent time with Marco Leona at the Met and Richard Newman at the MFA learning the science and studying their testing methods. In the end he decided to go with high-performance liquid chromatography, or HPLC, an old standby and the one Newman was using in Boston. The process, which is used to analyze organic materials, is also used in tests of bloodalcohol levels and adulterated food. Newman helped him put together the right system (using some refurbished parts), and MacKenzie paid for it with some bequests. The Department of Cultural Affairs now has the only lab west of the Hudson River equipped to do this work, Bol said.
The stack of components, which looks a little like an old hi-fi stereo system, includes a solvent tray, a vacuum degasser, a pump, tiny steel columns, and a diode array detector, which “reads” the chromatogram and sends the data to a computerized workstation. Using associated software, MacKenzie can compare the “fingerprint” of carminic acid, or cochineal, to the markers for other reds. He said he tested as many as eight samples — and as few as one or two — from 250 separate pieces of art under consideration by the Red Team. Some pieces believed to contain cochineal because of the time period and location of the artist did not, including objects from Oaxaca. It didn’t show up in the famous Segesser hide paintings in the New Mexico History Museum either.
But MacKenzie did find it in all six samples (each about the size of a large comma in a textbook) from Miera y Pacheco’s map of New Mexico, which dates from about 1758, also in the History Museum collection. That’s the earliest known use of cochineal in New Mexico. Miera y Pacheco used cochineal to paint a jewel on a winged figure and the drapery on the lap of an angel. MacKenzie also found that the artist painted letters on the map in vermilion and shaded them in cochineal for a decorative effect. A 1780 retablo by Miera y Pacheco of Saint Raphael in the collection of the Museum of Spanish Colonial Art also tested positive.
Negotiating the loan requests and getting the objects to New Mexico was largely the job of museum registrar Ruth LaNore. She worked with Masterpiece International, a company that arranges for packing and transportation of artworks for museum exhibitions. Before agreeing to loan an object, the lending
institution always expects to review the museum’s facility report, which describes the institution’s security and HVAC systems. And each piece comes with a stringent set of conditions that specify, among other things, how the shipping crate must be constructed, the temperature and humidity in the exhibition space, security arrangements in the gallery, and how long the piece can safely be displayed.
High-value objects such as these are often accompanied across the ocean — or the country — by couriers and even security guards to be sure they arrive safely. The director of the Nettie Lee Benson Latin American Collection at the University of Texas at Austin, for example, was on hand in late April for the uncrating of a 1581 map of Cholula, Mexico, by an indigenous artist. Many pieces are so susceptible to damage by light they can only be loaned for a few months at a time. And some countries don’t allow their patrimony to be outside their borders for extended periods, Anderson said.
The Red Team was hoping the show would travel to two other venues, but conditions set by lending institutions made that impossible. A smaller version will go to the Bowers Museum in Santa Ana, California, and be on exhibit from November 2015 to March 21, 2016.
The exhibit also put a lot of demands on the design staff, which built a scale model before making construction drawings and beginning to build display cases and platforms. For this show, because of time limits, about 23 of the cases are being purchased. Others are being built internally. The cases, each of which cost thousands of dollars, account for a large chunk of the exhibit’s cost. Security was also upgraded. Designer Antoine Leriche confirmed, “This would be up there with the most complicated exhibits the folk art museum has organized in the last decade.”
Much of this work was occurring before the Red Team knew the museum would have the money to pay for it. The curators kept assuring Bol that they could always cut back, she said, but, “This show did just grow and grow as we saw what the possibilities were.”
Besides the Terra Foundation grant, the Museum of New Mexico Foundation had raised nearly $140,000 for the exhibition. But it wasn’t until last summer, when the National Endowment for the Humanities announced that the museum had been awarded a $400,000 grant (the largest available), that the team could relax a bit. The museum also received support from publisher Skira Rizzoli for the exhibit’s companion book, which includes information not previously published outside of scientific journals.
While the designers and curators build the exhibit itself, other museum employees are preparing educational programs associated with it. Among them are dyeing workshops during the summer and a series of lectures. “Often what happens is Santa Fe is put in this precious little place,” Padilla said. “This [exhibit] shows our place in the world.”
Left, El Greco: The Savior (from the Apostles series), Toledo, Spain, circa 16081614, oil on canvas; Museo del Greco, Toledo, IPCEGRE-GS1(CE00001); photo Tomas Antelo, Instituto del Patrimonio Cultural de España, Madrid
Above, clockwise from top, cochineal insects, dried cochineal bugs, and cochineal on prickly pear cactus, Santa Fe, New Mexico, 2014; photos © Addison Doty Opposite page, top, José Antonio de Alzate y Ramírez: Indian Collecting
Cochineal with a Deer Tail, 1777 Opposite page, bottom: workshop of Jacob Frères: armchair (fauteuil) from the Council Room (Salle du Conseil), Malmaison, France, 1800, painted and gilded beech; original under-upholstery and red wool show cover (silk, velvet, and gilded silver trim); New-York Historical Society, gift of Louis Borg, 1867.438 © New-York Historical Society
Orlando Dugi: evening gown (from the Red Collection), Santa Fe, New Mexico, 2014, hand-dyed silk duchesse satin, silk organza, and silk thread; cut-glass and sterling-silver beads, French coil, Swarovski crystals, vintage beads, and crystals; lining of duchesse satin and tulle; collection of the artist; photo by Blair Clark Opposite page, left, artist unknown: Portrait of a Young Woman
with a Harpsichord, Mexico, early 18th century, oil on canvas; Denver Art Museum, gift of Frederick and Jan Mayer, 3.2007; photo courtesy Denver Art Museum Opposite page, right, firefighter’s hooded cape (shōbō zukin), Japan, 18th-19th century, Edo period; Wool with gold- and silkthread embroidery and appliqué; John C. Weber Collection; photo John Bigelow Taylor