Madder Lake

(red madder, rose madder)


Origin, History and Characteristics

Madder lake, also called red madder, is an extract made by boiling the root of the madder plant (rubia tintorium). It was used as a textile dye in ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome, being the most permanent of the maroon or ruby-red colors of natural dyestuff origin. It is said to have been introduced in Italy by the Crusaders and was cultivated in Europe from the thirteenth-century on.

To produce pigment, the madder plant is first uprooted from the ground and left to dry in fields in small piles. The madder plant is often so tall that it cannot stand on its own. After that, it is put in larger piles for 2-3 days and then it is dried in warm air drying houses. Next, the dried roots are crushed and separated from the bark by sifting. Finally, the roots are crushed with stones and sifted to a fine powder. Some madder cannot be used immediately for dyeing; Alsatian and Dutch madder must remain in barrels for one or two years where it ferments. The best European madder is Dutch, but that from Smyrna is said to be even finer. Since madder lake has the consistence of a fluffy powder and has very little bulk it must be precipitated on an inert pigment or lake base, in order to make it suitable for brushing. Clay or alum was often used for this purpose. Such pigments were know as lakes. Madder like absorbs much binder, about 100% by volume.

El Greco,  Christ Driving the
Christ Driving the Traitors from the Temple
El Greco
c. 1600
Oil on canvas, 106.3 x 129.7 cm.
National Gallery, London

Madder lake produces a fairly permanent (if used properly and not exposed to excessive light) brilliant ruby-red tone, unique among the very few bright red pigments available to the artists of Vermeer's time. Its highly transparent nature makes it excellent for glazing. Madder lake was often glazed over a light toned underpainting as can be observed in the detail of El Greco's Christ Driving the Traitors from the Temple to the left. El Greco's method differed from common practices of the period. Most painters tempered the pigment with a more fluid oil medium which was applied in smooth strokes with a soft brush to achieve an unbroken glaze. An example of this more common method can be seen in Filipe IV, a caballo, by Velásquez. Vermeer never used this specific technique as he never painted pink drapery where it was usually employed.

Madder lake was frequently used to glaze over vermilion, a bright red pigment with a distinct orange tone. This glaze not only enhances the opaque vermilion but also protects it from fading.

Madder Lake in Vermeer's Painting

Girl with a Red Hat, Johannes Vermeer
Girl with a Red Hat (detail)
Johannes Vermeer
c. 1665–1667
Oil on panel, 23.2 x 18.1 cm.
National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

Vermeer used more than once the madder lake glaze over vermilion technique. The artist first modeled the object to be represented in various tones of vermilion using white to lighten and black to darken tonal values. Black must be used very sparingly since even the smallest addition creates a rather sullen effect. Once this area was dry it glazed with a thin, transparent layer red madder brushed on delicately with a soft-haired brush. The upper layer of madder lake deepens the orange tone of vermilion is nearing it in hue to today's brilliant cadmium reds. Two excellent examples of this glazing technique can be found in Vermeer's work on the red plumed hat of Girl with a Red Hat.

Madder lake was also used in the warmer parts of the flesh tones such as the lips or cheeks either by direct mixture or as a glaze in conjunction with the basic lead white and yellow ochre mixture which he often used as a base for the lighter parts of flesh tones. The mouth of the Girl with a Pearl Earring was painted with madder lake. Some of the rather monochrome flesh tones seen in Vermeer's faces might be explained by madder lake's tendency to fade if used in minimum proportions.

Vermeer may have used a mixture red madder and black to make the preliminary drawing on the canvas and in the shadowed areas of the flesh tones as other Dutch painters. Madder lake has been detected as an admixture with other pigments in Vermeer's paintings.