Will Byrnes's Reviews > A Perfect Red

A Perfect Red by Amy Butler Greenfield
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Mar 27, 14

bookshelves: non-fiction
Read in February, 2006

Cochineal was the source of rich red color for centuries. What is it? A question for which Europe had no true answer for hundreds of years. This book tells the tale of the color red, how the color was viewed in society in various periods of time. (An indicator of class distinction, or of harlotry, for example) It is primarily a tale of adventure in which many attempt to locate the true source of this very valuable product, then try to steal it. Not only adventurers but scientists applied their skills to unveiling its secrets, with some making notable errors in the attempt. Cochineal is in fact the product of a small insect that lived primarily on a particular cactus and was so delicate of constitution that it was an almost impossible challenge for anyone who managed to succeed in transporting it back to Europe for cultivation. Artificial red supplanted cochineal during the industrial revolution, undercutting the market for the natural product severely. Concern that the artificial product was carcinogenic allowed the organic cochineal product to survive. Today, cultivation of the little bugs survives, but as a boutique product used mostly by native Mesoamericans for their products.

It may be a bit geeky, but I really enjoyed learning about the history of something I would never have given any thought, the actual cultural history of a color. Can Blue be far behind?

==============================EXTRA STUFF

This video, from the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, offers a nice visual

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Comments (showing 1-24 of 24) (24 new)

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message 1: by Dolors (new)

Dolors You read the most unusual books, Will. It would have never occurred to me to ask myself about the origins of a color. Fantastic.


message 2: by Miriam (new)

Miriam This art history book Painting Light had an interesting sections on the development of new pigments and how they influenced art styles.


message 3: by Jan (new)

Jan Rice Blue has a scriptural reference (tekhelet), so there's a lot on that and people who have put their energy into it. Then there's purple, which was rare and valuable enough to become "royal purple."

Also reminds me of the second book of Robertson Davies' The Cornish Trilogy: The Rebel Angels, What's Bred in the Bone, and The Lyre of Orpheus--all about an artist creating his pigments the way they did it 500 years ago...

Will, thanks for this review.


message 4: by Caroline (new)

Caroline Gosh, 352 pages, who'da thought the colour red could generate so many words... The video was astonishing - those Cochineal critters really are incredibly red, plus it made me laugh, and that was nice.


Will Byrnes Thanks for the reading recs. There is also a fair bit of information about elements and color in Periodic Tales.

Reading A Perfect Red is enough to make one want to read A Study in Scarlet, The Scarlet Pimpernel, The Scarlet Letter, The Red Badge of Courage and The Red Pony, or discover an urge to watch the movies Reds or The Red Balloon.


message 6: by Jan (new)

Jan Rice Well red, Will. I'm red in the face to have missed all those references. Well, I better go get reddy...


Will Byrnes And that was a reduced list


message 8: by Ian (new)

Ian Paganus You're both inkredibly well red.


message 9: by Algernon (new)

Algernon If you want to learn more about the colour Blue, check out Christopher Moore's book set around the Impressionist painters : Sacré Bleu: A Comedy d'Art


message 10: by Jan (new)

Jan Rice Referring, hopefully sans red-undancy, to Ian's comment including me within the e-red-ite company of the well red, I must say his and Will's records often leave me green with envy. Without laying down a red line I may have to white out later, I want to rise to their challenge, not being yellow--an effort that may sometimes leave me blue in the face, yet never in a black mood.


message 11: by Will (new) - rated it 4 stars

Will Byrnes Oh, snap! We've been rainbowed!


message 12: by Jan (new)

Jan Rice Just to add a little bit more color:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tbZDjn...

I got to see her recently when she came through; took my husband for an early birthday present. She's more mischievous-looking in person than on CBS...


message 13: by Will (new) - rated it 4 stars

Will Byrnes A lovely rendition, thanks


message 14: by Brendon (new)

Brendon Schrodinger Sounds very much like my type of book Will. There was a chapter on cochineal in Color: A Natural History of the Palette which I do need to reread.


message 15: by Taugey (new)

Taugey Sounds like a book I would like to read as well! Thanks for the review, Will


message 16: by Sidharth (new)

Sidharth Panwar It just makes me wonder that how *many* such small things that I don't pay attention to have such a rich and diverse history. Although not enyirely relevant but it reminded me of the speech Meryl Steep gives to Anne Hathway about the flow of flow of fashion from the elite design houses to the bulk produced shades of pink.


message 17: by Sidharth (new)

Sidharth Panwar In the movie "The devil wears Prada"...


message 18: by Florence (Lefty) (last edited Mar 23, 2014 09:25AM) (new)

Florence (Lefty) MacIntosh This appeals to my geeky nature. You might like Sacré Bleu: A Comedy d'Art for the same reason's you enjoyed this then Will. Provides quite a bit of backstory on what went into the pigmenting of the colour blue.


message 19: by Will (new) - rated it 4 stars

Will Byrnes Florence (Lefty) wrote: "This appeals to my geeky nature. You might like Sacré Bleu: A Comedy d'Art for the same reason's you enjoyed this then Will. Provides quite a bit of backstory on what went into the ..."
Sounds about right. Thx


message 20: by Kalliope (new) - added it

Kalliope A friend of mine recently read this but I have to say he was not too impressed. I

have read Bright Earth: Art and the Invention of Color, and have waiting for my attention Blue: The History of a Color and Black: The History of a Color.

There is also The Primary Colors: Three Essays and the accompanying volume of Secondary Colors.


message 21: by Will (new) - rated it 4 stars

Will Byrnes So may colors, so little time. All four look wonderfully informative.


message 22: by Kalliope (new) - added it

Kalliope Will wrote: "So may colors, so little time. All four look wonderfully informative."

Yes, I know... colors are there... it is just time that is missing... two of the volumes are waiting for my attention, but it is a fascinating subject.


message 23: by Monica (new)

Monica good


message 24: by Cecily (new)

Cecily " I really enjoyed learning about the history of something I would never have given any thought, the actual cultural history of a color. Can Blue be far behind? "

I don't know about blue, but I'm sure there's a biography of the colour purple (and I'm not thinking of Alice Walker).


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