The great Venetian artists known as Titian and Tintoretto and the impressionist painter Vincent Van Gogh have awed people throughout history with their artistic achievements. This is not news to most of you. However, you probably did not know that these are just a few artists who created their works with the help of an insect. The insect is known as the cochineal. This insect was native to Mexico, and the first Spanish explorers to the region took the insect back home to Europe with them. So what makes this bug so special? Apparently, when the bug is ground up into a fine dust it can be used as an effective red dye. Once the Spanish explorers returned to Europe, artists on the continent snatched it up as the perfect shade of red to be used in paintings. You would be surprised at how many paintings you see in museums that contain ground up insects.
The red dye that was made from the cochineal insect quickly generated high demand in Europe, and being in possession of this substance was associated with great power and wealth. However, the introduction of synthetic dyes in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries decreased the cochineal’s value. But this was when even the poorest of artists could afford to get their hands on this ideal red dye. The red dye came to be associated with impressionist painters.
The cochineal insect was cultivated in Mexico and Peru during pre-hispanic times. The insect is a parasite that feeds on the prickly pear cactus. In order to extract the dye from the cochineal insect, the females would be ground up in order to extract the carminic acid. After that, acids of varying acidity were used to produce a variety of different colors ranging from pink to deep purple. Since the colors could last for long periods of time without fading, the cochineal was in high demand in pre-hispanic Mexico and later Europe. The dye is still used today.
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