Spring 2012

Colors / Madder Lake

Fierce blood to pale wash

Lytle Shaw

“Colors” is a column in which a writer responds to a specific color assigned by the editors of Cabinet.

Forget about madder lake’s role in Egyptian tomb painting. Forget Tutankhamun. Forget its place in Greek and Roman art where, diluted with gypsum, it would produce a gorgeous pink hue. Forget Corinth and Pompeii. Madder lake found its calling when, in the seventeenth century, it became the color of the British army’s red coat. As Britain expanded its colonial outposts globally throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, madder lake grew into the color of empire. In this way, it was also a brand, perhaps comparable to imperial purple fifteen centuries earlier but now extended over a far-broader geographical area. European merchants might have glimpsed madder lake vests through palm trees in the Bahamas, coming into focus over sand dunes in Egypt, or popping out of the Canadian tundra as a trader landed his boat in the Northwest Territory. Long before Coca-Cola’s cursive logo or the golden arches of McDonald’s reminded you, in a fraction of a second, that the United States could extend a tiny tentacle even to that remote spot across the globe where you happened to encounter them, the madder lake red coat sought to tame foreignness with its familiarity—even if you were a sworn enemy of the empire.

But if the red coat was an early global brand, it was not merely an empty sign that was gradually filled with meaning through repetition in new contexts. Rather, the coat also sought to be a literal embodiment of something essentially British—blood, and its attendant overdetermined symbolism of hardiness, bravery, and valor. The blood that coursed through the soldiers’ veins was manifest on their jackets. Nor was this merely a cover for the inevitable real gore that would soon spatter those same jackets: this would stain the red coat dark brown.

Still, the red coat also evoked the powers of blood in a less direct way—through its association with British aristocracy. The red coat implied that even the common soldier partook, in some small way, of the vast grandeur of royal blood. But this also introduced lingering questions both about the extent of royal blood available in England and its preparation for battle. Had all these soldiers just wandered in from fox hunting or risen from the card table to empty a few rounds into the natives? Were Washington’s troops really aiming their muskets at the clientele of London’s most fashionable clubs, owners of hallowed country piles? One facet of this question was managed, prior to 1870, by assigning officers a deeper scarlet red—presumably in acknowledgment of the greater thickness or weight of their blood.

El Greco, Christ Driving the Traders from the Temple, ca. 1600.

Madder lake thus bleeds into an endless train of imperial and dynastic associations. And yet the color was also bleeding out of the uniforms: its vegetable dyes would gradually fade into shades of brown or pink during long campaigns. And this kind of degradation was a problem, especially for the British. Here we encounter the other main trajectory in madder lake’s history: fierce blood becoming a pale wash, the ur-sign of passion and robust vigor diminishing to a watery stain—a transient intensity in all but the most skilled dye maker or painter’s hands. And this seems to have been why the chemists’ hands took over. Madder lake was, in fact, the first color to be broken down into its constitutive chemical components and produced synthetically.

The first phase of this occurred in 1804 when the English dye maker George Field figured out how to “lake” madder more effectively: to turn it into a pigment by precipitating it with an inert binder, in this case alum and an alkali. Then, in 1826, the French chemist Pierre-Jean Robiquet (discoverer of amino acids) identified madder’s chemical basis as alizarin and purpurin.[1] Alizarin was first produced synthetically beginning in the late 1860s by William Henry Perkin in England and, independently, by Carl Graebe and Carl Liebermann in Germany, who needed the help of Heinrich Caro of BASF.

It was at this same moment that, mysteriously, the British red coat shifted from alizarin to the more saturated scarlet. Having finally isolated the chemical basis of madder lake, the British army simply abandoned the lighter red before abandoning red altogether a few years later for more modern, practical battlefield browns and khakis. By 1914, madder lake and scarlet were both consigned almost entirely to ceremonial functions.

The problem of fixing symbolic passion, of refusing the forces of dilution and fading, is emphasized by madder lake’s use as a glaze in painting, where it is far more pale and transparent. If madder lake as dye could not even conjure a moderately fierce outpouring of bodily fluid, if it was merely a marching stop on the way to scarlet, then what is its symbolic domain as a glaze? El Greco presents one kind of answer to this question by setting Jesus’s robes in a madder lake glaze in his Christ Driving the Traders from the Temple (ca. 1600) in the National Gallery in London. Here Christ is a conflicted, self-conscious thug—a red-coat hippie. His two-value robe—a paler and a darker madder lake glaze, the first lit, the second in shadow—sets off, and sits in the center of, a comparatively muted room of robes, flesh, and classical architecture in dirty yellows, chalky browns, and off-whites, with touches of lime and pale blue. Christ, in other words, dominates the poor traders physically and coloristically. Or he would, if it weren’t for his seeming lack of practice at whip-based smackdowns. Prompted to purify his temple, Jesus discovers—mid-blow—that his limbs were not formed for workaday beatings. His right leg floats awkwardly in the air as he prepares to backhand his whip into a buff, lemon-robed trader who raises a toned arm in self-defense. We are concerned not so much about the impending blow as about the prospect that Christ’s own misaligned limbs will topple the rickety savior in the process.

Apostles, however, have been planted ringside to boost Jesus’s confidence. Among the tumbling tables, one gazes earnestly at Christ, having selected a spot that would constitute a front-row seat, and gotten there first, just in time to see the spontaneous event occur! One of the mysteries this apostle might be contemplating is how frail Jesus has been able to topple the foreground table several feet beyond the point at which, still dramatically entering the room, he’s actually arrived. The trader hauling his box off the ground seems not to have upset it. Was it, then, a rush of wind generated by the rampaging savior? Or just another miracle?

Perhaps this is what the second man, also an apostle, has bent over the first gazer to discuss; indeed his index finger, though arguably held in a rhetorical gesture, also seems to point at the table. Whatever they are saying, what is so striking about their being able to hold a conversation just there in the middle of Jesus’s staged performance is that we see the instantaneous transmission of the event as narrative, as Christian lore. The planted apostles convert the disruptive scene of violence seamlessly and immediately into discourse. “It”—the scattering of the traders—hasn’t even happened yet. The mysteriously upset table hasn’t even struck the floor, and yet a couple of Christ’s apostles are already telling—nay, amplifying and embellishing—stories about the great deed. This brand of PR work is how Christianity won out, with reporters waiting at would-be “spontaneous” events in just the right position to nudge wobbling tables, and then discourse on the uncontestable force field of his righteous wrath. And madder lake is at the center of this event management. As a glaze, it is the pale, premeditated vigor that the apostles must supplement and improve with their tireless press engines, tinting it toward alizarin or even scarlet for our memories.

  1. If Robiquet’s work of stabilizing madder lake was a boon for the British, his discovery of codeine in 1832 would wash away the classic British pharmacopoeia: opium-based laudanum and paregoric elixirs.

Lytle Shaw teaches American literature at New York University. His books include Cable Factory 20 (Atelos, 1999), Frank O’Hara: The Poetics of Coterie (University of Iowa Press, 2006), and The Chadwick Family Papers (Periscope, 2008). The Moiré Effect is forthcoming from Cabinet Books and Bookhorse.

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