(Zinnober, cinnabar, cinnabar)

vermilion pigment

Origin, History and Characteristics

Lustrous, radiating, acicular, red cinnabar crystals richly cover the vertical matrix on this excellent specimen from the famous Almaden Mine of California.

Vermilion is the standard name given to the red pigment based on artificially-made mercuric sulfide. The common red crystalline form of mercuric sulfide is cinnabar, a name reserved only for the natural mineral. The natural product found chiefly in Almaden and Idria has been eliminated for practical purposes. The properties of both natural and artificially prepared are practically identical. The best cinnabar came from Spain, but there were deposits of it in Italy at Monte Amiata, not far from Siena, and elsewhere in Europe. Upon grinding the red color begins to appear, and the longer it is ground, the finer the color becomes. It was widely used in the art and decoration of Ancient Rome, in the illuminated manuscripts of the Middle Ages and in the paintings of the Renaissance. The color was most famously used in creating Chinese lacquerware, which was exported around the world, giving rise to the term "Chinese red."

The traditional use of red glazes of madder, kermes and cochineal lakes over vermilion underpaint not only increases the purity of the color but has been shown to reduce the tendency to darken as well. It is also known that the farther light can penetrate into the binding medium, the more quickly the vermilion will darken.

Vermilion in Vermeer's Painting

Woman with a Water Pitcher, Johannes Vermeer
Young Woman with a Water Pitcher (detail)
Johannes Vermeer
c. 1662–1665
Oil on canvas, 45.7 x 40.6 cm.
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Vermeer used vermilion in the traditional manner under glazes. The striking red satin gown in the Glass of Wine and that of the Girl with a Wine Glass were probably first modeled with shades of vermillion and white lead and perhaps small quantities of black or natural ultramarine in the deepest shades. The whole gown was then glazed with madder lake. The same technique was also used to paint the fanciful read plumed hat worn by the Girl with a Red Hat.

Vermeer also made use of vermilion to paint the oriental carpets which appear on the tables in many of his interiors. Again he seems to have employed the same technique described above. In its purer form, vermilion may be observed in the various ribbons and trimmings worn by his sitters.