(cochineal, crimson lake)


Origin, History and Characteristics

Carmine is a natural organic dyestuff made from the dried bodies of the female cochineal insect, crocus cacti, which lives on various cactus plants in Mexico and in Central and South America. Carmine must be precipitated on clay, since it has no body of its own. It was brought to Europe shortly after the discovery of those countries, first described by Mathioli in 1549. The finest quality, known as nacarat carmine, is non poisonous and quite beautiful with the peculiarity of being more permanent in transmitted light as a transparent color, than when under direct light. According to Maximillian Toch, it is only legitimate as a food coloring, as exposure to the sunlight for three months, bleaches the pigment completely.

Since carmine is very transparent, it is an excellent pigment for glazing.

Carmine in Vermeer's Painting

Carmine has been detected in only two of Vermeer's paintings, The Love Letter and The Procuress. In The Love Letter it was most likely used in the design of the leather guilt wall covering behind the two sitters or in the hanging curtain (see image right).

Vermeer most likely used carmine more extensively but either in areas which have not been examined or else it has suffered fading.