First of all, let’s agree that we all see red differently. Not only does it change for the individual the instant we blink and refocus, but each person could look at the same red and experience a different color.

Cultures, too, see or experience the color differently. In China, red represents good luck and celebration. The Cherokees saw success and triumph; South Africans see red as the color of mourning, and in India, it’s seen as purity. In Eastern cultures, brides wear red. But in Western cultures, red means excitement, danger, love, passion—and with green, Christmas. (Go figure.)

 The Oxford English Dictionary offers three categories to explain the meaning of red: adjectives, nouns and phrases.

The primary definition states that red is a color at the end of a spectrum next to orange and opposite violet. Sir Isaac Newton would be proud. As well as Goethe, Michel Eugène Chevreul, Josef Albers, and Albert Henry Munsell, all influential thinkers in color theory.

Think of blood-red lips, fire, rubies, or a person flushed with lust, alcohol, anger or plain good health. As in, “There were some red faces at the bordello.”

Think of a person’s bloodshot eyes from tiredness or crying or chemicals.

Think of a pack of cards with hearts and diamonds or red, red wine.

Think stop, forbidden, dangerous, or urgent. And remember the scarlet letter that Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Hester Prynne wore.

As  nouns and adjectives, red flourishes as well:

The work marked in red by a teacher.

She could not wear red or drink red wine.

There was a red billiard ball under the red light.

The man was in the red—as well as being a socialist.


Phrases tend to be florid, such as Better dead than red.

Red as a beet.

Red in tooth and claw (from Alfred, Lord Tennyson).

The red planet.

The Red, White, and Blue.

Seeing red.

The origin in Old English is read (accent over the e), of Germanic origin, related to the Dutch rood and German rot, from an Indo-European root word shared by Latin: ruffus, ruber, the Greek eruthros, and Sanskrit rudhira. 

Red enjoys a primary position in art. It is a venerable color, and as we approach the close of this Valentine’s Day month, let’s start there.

Valentine’s Day was instituted by Pope Gelasuis I in 500 A.D. to commemorate a Christian martyr. By the Middle Ages, it had become associated with the kind of romantic love that Geoffrey Chaucer celebrated as an experience between erotic desire and spiritual attainment—something that is, well, a bit contradictory in today’s culture.

A beautiful example celebrating courtly love is a painting by Edmund Blair Leighton entitled “God Speed.” Note the color of the knight’s tunic—a deep red.

Red and White

The Dance of Life

In the late 1800s and early 1900, Edvard Munch did several paintings using red. In 1894, he painted “Red and White,”  a work about passion and purity. And in 1900, virginity, carnal knowledge and old age were celebrated in “The Dance of Life.

Georgia O’Keeffe’s “Red Canna” is often read as an ode to her passion for Alfred Stieglitz. It was painted the year before their marriage.

Elizabeth Osborne has frequently celebrated red in her work. In the 2001 “Requiem for C.W.,” a red cross figures prominently, an emblem of honor perhaps. In “Equinox,” a 2009 painting, a red leaf with warm and cool variations represent the height of summer. And in “Nightfall111,” Osborne depicts that subject in bands of color, with red evoking the setting sun or nocturnal passions. And in a 2010 painting, “Red Horse,” I myself used the color to celebrate power, strength, and dominance. 

I can only wonder if William Gass’ literary masterpiece, On Being Blue: A Philosophical Inquiry would have been even more transcendent if he’d used the color red.

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  • alice ray cathrall March 8, 2011 at 9:06 am

    Dear Pat
    Thank you for your kind words.
    I hope you have checked the web site.
    Will keep you posted on the show which is MAy 13th at the Academy.
    To update you,I have a new 2010 RED grand sport convertible that has been supercharged by Callaway .It is an sc580 meaning 580 horse power,almost as much torque,OZ wheels from Italy,a double d exhaust and a sleek black custom hood bulge.
    It does not work in snow or rain but is very loud like an eagle ‘s scream and goes very fast.And when I don’t step on it,it gets 25 miles per gallon.

  • Patricia Yarberry Allen February 27, 2011 at 6:55 pm

    This is a wonderful and literate discussion of a color that many women find confusing. Woman in red. Red lips. These are illusions to women who may be pushing the well behaved envelope.

    The paintings add so much. The red horse is filled with power and sweat and movement. Something like the red corvette I know you used to own. Horses of a different color, indeed.

    We are so pleased that your painting schedule has allowed you to return to Your reinvention at mid-life is a template for any woman who can find the courage and has the talent.