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“Red, red, freckled.” The most famous redheads in art history

People with natural red hair color always attracted attention with their “unconventionality” – real or far-fetched. And throughout the history of art, artists from Sandro Botticelli to Dante Gabriel Rossetti revealed the powerful symbolism of red hair, which at different times alternately meant promiscuity, sensuality, cunning and, above all, otherness.

Red hair is rare, but why do we find its wearers particularly attractive or naturally lustful? Why Botticelli decided to give his Venus-the goddess of sex, beauty and love — long strands of ripe rye color? What prompted Rossetti to chase down the street Alexa Wilding-a woman he later portrayed in the painting “La Ghirlandata” (1873) and other works — and beg her to pose? (According to Jackie Collis Harvey, author of Red. The story of redheads”, Rossetti was “an absolutely classic example of a man obsessed with redheads, uncontrollably obsessed”.)
Sandro Botticelli. Birth Of Venus
Birth Of Venus
Sandro Botticelli
1486, 172.5×278.5 cm
In the early stages of evolution, humans developed the ability to distinguish between red, green, and blue colors, which helped them (among other things) select ripe, brightly colored fruits in predominantly green foliage. “And that’s before all the associations with fire, heat, sun and blood,” Harvey continues. Thus, red is a very “intuitive” color associated with survival, sex, and strong emotions.
Piero di Cosimo. Mary Magdalene Reading
Piero di Cosimo, Reading Mary Magdalene (circa 1500). National gallery of ancient art, Rome

Mary Magdalene of the New Testament, long regarded as a repentant harlot, is one of the earliest and most common figures in Western art history, portrayed with red hair, which conveys her sinful essence. Whether she sits meekly with the Bible, as Piero di Cosimo did in the late fifteenth century, or sprawled naked in a cave, as Jules Joseph Lefebvre painted her in 1876, the woman’s fiery red hair has always been a point of attraction.

In Caravaggio’s painting “Martha and Mary Magdalene” (circa 1598), the viewer sees the moment of her spiritual transformation from a harlot to a pious believer. Her red hair becomes an artifact of the past she leaves behind to follow Christ.

Jules Joseph Lefebvre. Mary Magdalene in the grotto. 1876michelangelo Merisi de Caravaggio. Martha and Mary Magdalene
Jules Joseph Lefebvre, “Mary Magdalene in the grotto” (1876). State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg
Michelangelo Merisi de Caravaggio, Martha and Mary Magdalene (1598). Detroit Institute of the arts
The representation of Mary Magdalene as a woman who simultaneously embodies sin, virtue, lust and chastity undoubtedly causes a certain aesthetic and cultural conflict. In many ways, it reflects the polar stigma of redheads in our society. Angelic or demonic, supernatural or mundane — hair the color of copper reported on the extremes. Most interpretations — whether “good” or “bad” — involve two concepts: gender and class.
Dante Gabriel Rossetti. La Ghirlandata (Topped with a garland)
Dante Gabriel Rossetti, ” La Ghirlandata (Topped with a garland)” (1873). Guildhall art gallery, London

If the fiery hair makes sensual and exotic women (Mary Magdalene may be sinful, but she is at least” damn ” attractive), it almost does not add charm to the opposite sex. “The fact is that this color works as a benchmark of female beauty, but becomes a kind of disadvantage applicable to men,” Harvey writes. A feature that makes redheaded women attractive, ironically gives the red-haired men by being unattractive. Such for many centuries portrayed traitors, thieves, offenders and other despised — and this formed a stereotype, from which often suffer men with “flaming” hair.

Hieronymus Bosch. Carrying The Cross
Carrying The Cross
Hieronymus Bosch
1498, 142.5×104.5 cm
Judas Iscariot, the disciple who betrayed Jesus, along with Mary Magdalene is among the biblical characters whose hair is most often dyed red. In this case, the color does not idealize the figure and does not make it sexy — it is a sign of degeneration. This view of red-haired people as traitors was born out of anti-Semitic beliefs in medieval Europe, when “the Jews were the murderers of Christ and the kidnappers of Christian children,” Harvey explains in his book. Prejudice against Jews became prejudice against red hair. Freckles in medieval Germany were often referred to as Judasdreck (“mud of Judas”), confirming the belief that the physical attributes that often complement red hair signal that a person cannot be trusted.

The same was the case in Russia. In Russian language there are many nasty Proverbs about redheads, for example, “red Yes red-man dangerous” or”with black bath not swamp, with red friendship not drive.” To top it off, the decree of Peter I forbade redheads to hold senior positions and testify in the courts: “… God marks the rascal!”.
Antonis van Dyck. judas kiss
judas kiss
Antonis van Dyck
1620, 344×253 cm
The canvas by Antonis van Dyck (whose own hair was copper-colored), titled the Kiss of Judas (1618/20), depicts the moment when the traitor Apostle kisses Jesus on the mount of olives, and thus shows the Romans who should be arrested. This Baroque depiction is dynamic and lively: a wide diagonal created by a crowd of figures looking towards Christ draws attention to his face, towards which Judas is reaching. His own face is half hidden by a mass of red hair tangled with a matching beard. They in turn merge with the tone of the skin and robes, isolating the figure of Judas and putting it in the center of attention.
Joos van Cleve. Altar of mourning for Christ
Altar of mourning for Christ
Jos van Kleve
Another ore Judas can be found on the altar of “Mourning for Christ” (C.1520/25) Jos van Kleve. In the lower part of the work, in the Last supper, his sharp nose and cheekbones are turned to Jesus, and copper shades are visible in his beard and hair. It is not uncommon in the history of art that Christ appears with brown hair, but here his features are soft, idealized, which creates a contrast with the rough wrinkled skin and stiff curls of Judas. And, paradoxically, red hair on Jesus was considered a sign of moral purity.
In the Renaissance, red hair was suitable only for sinners and saints, but for no one else.
Artists of the modern era in the XIX-XX centuries also used the symbolism of red hair. Some painters continued the tradition of turning Jesus into a defenseless ginger to show his otherness and divinity. Vincent van Gogh’s masterpiece Pieta (based on Delacroix) (1889) depicts Christ, whose strands are similar in color to the artist’s hair. An innocent child from a painting by pre-Raphaelite artist John Everett Millais, Christ in his parents ‘ house (1849/50), Charles Dickens criticized as “a crooked-necked, whimpering red-haired boy in a nightgown”.
John Everett Millais. Christ in his parents ‘ house
Christ in his parents ‘ house
John Everett Millais
1850, 86.4 x 139.7 cm
If the red hair of Jesus suggests the otherworld, of Mary-of lust, of Judas-of degeneration, the hair color in the candid images of the Parisian nightlife of the late XIX century, Edgar Degas and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec does not mean anything of the kind. The red-haired Toulouse-Lautrec lacks the idealized bodies of Magdalene Lefebvre and the glamour of Rossetti’s “garlanded”. Instead, their work is a grim look at the grim realities of Parisian entrepreneurs and prostitutes.
Vincent Van Gogh. Pieta (Lamentation of Jesus Christ)by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. Rue des Moulins, the medical inspection
Vincent van Gogh, ” Pieta (based on Delacroix)”, 1889. Vincent Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam
Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Rue de Moulin, medical examination, 1894. National gallery of art, Washington
Rue de Moulin, medical examination (1894) by Toulouse-Lautrec — this oil sketch on cardboard represents two women standing one behind the other. Their stockings are pulled down to their hips, their blouses are gathered under their Breasts, their cheeks are red. The first, a blonde, looks as if she’s about to collapse from exhaustion, while the second — with bright red hair-is more confident. They are tested for syphilis — a monthly requirement for working in a brothel (hence the lack of underwear). The unnaturally bright hue of the hairstyle is not so much an artistic exaggeration of Toulouse-Lautrec as an accurate rendering of henna-dyed hair, which many prostitutes and actors preferred. This kind of helped them stand out in a brothel or on stage.
Gustave Courbet. Beautiful Irish (Portrait of Joe)
Beautiful Irish (Portrait of Joe)
Gustave Courbet
1865, 55.9×66 cm
The story of redheads in art history would be incomplete without a mention of Joanna (Jo) Hiffernan, the model her lover Gustave Courbet portrayed in” the Beautiful Irish “and”the Sleepers.” For decades, most art critics were convinced that she posed for the controversial painting “the Origin of the world” (1866), created by order of the Turkish diplomat and collector Khalil Bey, who collected erotic paintings. It was disconcerting, however, that the dark hair in Courbet’s painting did not match Hiffernan’s flaming red curls.

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