Colour Notes 8: The scarlet woman

Carolus-Duran (1837–1917), Portrait of Mademoiselle de Lancey (1876), oil on canvas, 157 × 211 cm, Le Petit Palais, Paris. Wikimedia Commons.

Colour is widely known for its symbolic use, which also pervades language. In this article I look at what might appear a fairly clear and straightforward example, the scarlet woman.

There are two origins proposed for this term: the earlier is the New Testament book of Revelation, in its characterisation of the Whore of Babylon in chapter 17, verses 4-5, where she’s described as being dressed in purple and scarlet, and decked with gold, precious stones and pearls.

William Blake (1757–1827), The Whore of Babylon (1809), pen and black ink and watercolour on paper, 26.6 x 22.3 cm, The British Museum, London. Courtesy of and © Trustees of the British Museum.

William Blake’s watercolour of The Whore of Babylon from 1809 follows this quite literally, although his purple has faded now. This is one of a small series of watercolours depicting visionary scenes from the book of Revelation which Blake painted for his patron Thomas Butts.

The other origin is steeped in a longer history, although the use of the term scarlet woman is relatively modern. Red robes were distinctive dress for the ruling class in classical Greece and Rome. The Christian Church followed suit, and its cardinals still wear scarlet. In the late Middle Ages, as dissent grew with the Catholic Church in Rome, and the conduct of some of its cardinals became openly scandalous, the Church became known as the scarlet woman, from the robes of those cardinals. In the late sixteenth century that usage transferred to become applied to prostitutes and promiscuous women.

William Hogarth (1697–1764), Marriage A-la-Mode: 3, The Inspection (c 1743), oil on canvas, 69.9 × 90.8 cm, The National Gallery, London. Courtesy of The National Gallery London, inventory NG115.

William Hogarth makes this reference in the third painting, The Inspection, from his series Marriage A-la-Mode (c 1743), where the woman’s pinafore and bonnet, actually painted in vermilion rather than scarlet, make clear her way of life.

Anne-Louis Girodet de Roussy-Trioson (1767–1824), Portrait of Mlle. Lange as Danae (1799), oil on canvas, 60.3 x 48.6 cm, Minneapolis Institute of Arts, Minneapolis, MN. Wikimedia Commons.

When Girodet painted his revenge portrait of the notorious courtesan Mlle Lange as a money-grabbing prostitute, he combined a scarlet accessory with her nakedness. However, the reading of this painting depends more heavily on reinterpreting the myth of Danaë, the cascade of golden coins, and the other symbols around her.

Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824–1904), Phryné before the Areopagus (1861), oil on canvas, 80 x 128 cm, Kunsthalle Hamburg, Germany. Wikimedia Commons.

Other famous courtesans missed scarlet altogether. In Gérôme’s Phryné before the Areopagus (1861) the meaning of scarlet falls back to the more classical, as the colour of the robes of the members of the court. Her robe, which has just been taken away to reveal her body in its nakedness, is pale blue.

Other nineteenth century artists were more conventional in their use of colours.

Ford Madox Brown (1821–1893), Work (1863), oil on canvas, 68.4 x 99 cm, Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, Birmingham, England. Wikimedia Commons.

In Ford Madox Brown’s Work (1863), the young profligate woman in the foreground wears a torn and tattered red dress (detail below), although it’s faded rather than full scarlet.

Ford Madox Brown (1821–1893), Work (detail) (1863), oil on canvas, 68.4 x 99 cm, Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, Birmingham, England. Wikimedia Commons.
Édouard Manet (1832–1883), Olympia (1863), oil on canvas, 130 x 190 cm, Musée d’Orsay, Paris. Wikimedia Commons.

When Édouard Manet came to paint his shocking full-length portrait of a reclining prostitute, Olympia, that same year, there’s barely a trace of scarlet or any duller red. Perhaps even he thought that would be going too far.

Carolus-Duran (1837–1917), Portrait of Mademoiselle de Lancey (1876), oil on canvas, 157 × 211 cm, Le Petit Palais, Paris. Wikimedia Commons.

Scarlet does, though, appear as a more indirect reference to a woman’s moral virtue. Carolus-Duran’s Portrait of Mademoiselle de Lancey (1876) appeared at the Salon fourteen years later and in its own way became infamous as ‘the lady with the red cushion’. Most of those who attended that Salon knew only too well that she was one of the great courtesans of the Belle Epoque, and could name many of her succession of rich lovers. The scarlets and crimsons and her direct wide-eyed gaze at the viewer left little to the imagination, and the critics were almost as merciless with Carolus-Duran as they had been with Manet.

Félicien Rops (1833–1898), Pornocrates (1878), watercolour, pastel and gouache on paper, 75 x 45 cm, Musée Provincial Félicien Rops, Namur, Belgium. Wikimedia Commons.

Pornocrates, or Woman with a Pig from 1878 is Félicien Rops’ best-known painting. It shows a nearly-naked woman whose gloves and stockings only serve to eroticise her nakedness, being led by a pig tethered on a lead like a dog. She wears a blindfold, and an exuberant black hat, all suggesting that she is a courtesan or prostitute. In the air are three winged amorini, and below is a frieze containing allegories of sculpture, music, poetry and painting. Yet the only trace of scarlet is in one flower on the stocking on her left leg.

Félicien Rops (1833–1898), Down and Out (1882), pastel and crayon on paper, 45.5 x 30 cm, Musée Provincial Félicien Rops, Namur, Belgium. Wikimedia Commons.

Rops’ use of scarlet remained restrained in his later paintings. His response to the popularity of Naturalism was to paint this quite tender portrait of a low-end prostitute, Down and Out in 1882. While she stands next to a sheet on the wall headed TARIF making clear her trade, just one small red flower adorns her flaunted cleavage.

Edvard Munch (1863–1944), Jealousy (1895), oil on canvas, 67 × 100.5 cm, Bergen kunstmuseum, Bergen, Norway. Wikimedia Commons.

Edvard Munch used scarlet as colour-coding in a few of his paintings. Perhaps the most obvious is in Jealousy (1895), where Eve stands with her scarlet dress open to reveal her body, as she reaches up to pick an apple for Adam. This painting was part of an artistic dialogue between the writer Stanislaw Przbyszewski, model for the demonic face at the right, and Munch, who was having an affair with Przbyszewski’s Norwegian wife at the time.

John Collier (1850–1934), The Prodigal Daughter (1903), oil on canvas, 166 x 217 cm, Usher Gallery, Lincoln, England. WikiArt.

In the early years of the twentieth century, John Collier’s highly successful problem picture of the Prodigal Daughter (1903) uses a bold splash of scarlet on the dress of the prodigal daughter who has turned up out of the blue in her parents’ parlour. The contrast in dress between them is stark.

I have carefully avoided showing any paintings of Mary Magdalene, where scarlet could be a reference to her murky past, making its reading ambiguous at least. Inconsistent use of scarlet quickly becomes a problem when you look a bit wider.

Raphael (1483–1520), Portrait of a Cardinal (1510-11), oil on panel, 79 x 61 cm, Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid, Spain. Wikimedia Commons.

Inevitably, scarlet robes are a common feature in portraits of cardinals, such as Raphael’s from 1510-11. But you only have to go back a few years more to hit real trouble.

Jan van Eyck, The Madonna of Chancellor Rolin (c 1435) oil on panel, 66 x 62 cm. Musée du Louvre, Paris (WikiArt).
Jan van Eyck (1390-1441), The Madonna of Chancellor Rolin (c 1435) oil on panel, 66 x 62 cm. Musée du Louvre, Paris (WikiArt).

In Jan van Eyck’s Madonna of Chancellor Rolin from about 1435, the Virgin Mary is swathed in a scarlet cloak.

Giorgione (1477–1510), Virgin and Child with Saint Nicasius and Saint Francis of Assisi (‘Castelfranco Altarpiece’) (c 1500), oil on panel, 200 x 152 cm, Duomo di Santa Maria Assunta e San Liberale, Castelfranco, Veneto, Italy. Wikimedia Commons.

Giorgione was another artist who depicted the Virgin wearing scarlet, in this altarpiece for the Duomo di Santa Maria Assunta e San Liberale in Castelfranco, Italy, which he painted in about 1500. Here it’s paired with its contrast and complement green, rather than the traditional ultramarine blue.

In language, reference to a scarlet woman is generally clear and unambiguous, whereas in paintings you need to read the whole of the image and not just a single colour.