Untangling the Symbolism of Art History’s Most Famous Redheads

Sarah Dotson
May 24, 2019 5:32PM

Vincent van Gogh, Pietà (after Delacroix), 1889. Courtesy of the Van Gogh Museum.

The year is 2006, and I am walking down the hall to my locker. The smell of pencil erasers and lukewarm lunch meat permeates the air. I head to homeroom, where I quietly take a seat in the back and open the glossy pages of my history textbook to read up on peanut farms and Jimmy Carter.

“Do you even have a soul?” a kid in my class snickers at me, his friends nudging him and trying to shield their giggles. A rather frail and timid middle schooler, I laugh off the odd question and look back at my book. My classmate continues, “You’re a ginger. There’s no way you have a soul!”

This was my introduction to the “otherness” that surrounds redheads, real and imagined. Throughout history, artists from Sandro Botticelli to Dante Gabriel Rossetti have mined the potent symbolism of red hair to alternately suggest promiscuity, sensuality, deviousness, and—above all—otherness for centuries.


Redheads are rare, but why should that make them particularly beguiling or innately prurient? Why did Botticelli choose to give his Venus—the goddess of sex, beauty, and love—long strawberry locks? What possessed Rossetti to chase Alexa Wilding—the woman who modeled for his La Ghirlandata (1873), in addition to other works—down the street to beg her to sit for him? (According to Jacky Colliss Harvey, author of Red: A History of the Redhead, Rossetti was an “absolutely classic example of a man with a thing for redheads, an uncontrollable thing for redheads.”)

“This business of being attracted to the color red is very hardwired into us,” Harvey said. Early humans developed the ability to differentiate between reds, greens, and blues as an evolutionary mechanism to help them (among other things) better forage for ripe, brightly colored fruits in overwhelmingly green forests. “And that’s even before all of the associations with fire, and warmth, and sun, and blood,” Harvey continued. Red is thus a highly visceral color associated with survival, sex, and strong emotion.

Jules Joseph Lefebvre, Mary Magdalene in a Grotto, 1876. Courtesy of the Hermitage Museum.

The New Testament figure Mary Magdalene, long thought to be a reformed prostitute, is one of the earliest and most consistent figures in Western art history to be portrayed with red hair to communicate sinful lustiness. Regardless of whether she is depicted reformed and reading the Bible, as in Piero di Cosimo’s late 15th-century interpretation, or sprawled nude in a cave, as she is seductively portrayed in an 1876 work by Jules Joseph Lefebvre, her flaming red hair is always the focal point. In Caravaggio’s Martha and Mary Magdalene (ca. 1598), one sees the moment of her spiritual transformation from whore to pious devotee; her red hair becomes representative of the past she is leaving behind to follow Christ.

Representations of Mary Magdalene—a woman who simultaneously embodies sin, virtue, lust, and chastity—undoubtedly provoke a certain aesthetic and cultural tension. In many ways, this tension reflects the polarized stigmatization of red hair in society. Angelic or demonic, otherworldly or deeply provincial, red hair communicates extremes. Whether it is interpreted as “good” or “bad” often has to do with two things: gender and class.

The sensuality and exoticism of red hair that is admired in women (Mary Magdalene might be sinful, but at least she is attractive) do little for redheads of the opposite sex. “It is the fact that what works as a standard of female beauty becomes a sort of demerit if it is applied to men,” Harvey said. The trait that makes redheaded women desirable ironically renders redheaded men undesirable. They’re singled out as traitors, thieves, and delinquents—stereotypes that have led to centuries of depictions of despised men with flaming red hair.

Judas Iscariot, the disciple who betrayed Jesus, joins Mary Magdalene in the cast of biblical characters who are frequently painted with red hair. In his case, the color is not idealized or sexualized—it’s a sign of degeneracy. This notion of redheaded men as traitors spawns from anti-Semitic beliefs in medieval Europe, where “Jews were Christ-killers and the abductors of Christian children,” Harvey explains in her book. This prejudice against Jews became a prejudice against red hair. Freckles in medieval Germany were often called Judasdreck (“Judas dirt”), furthering the idea that physical attributes often found in conjunction with red hair signaled distrust.

Joos van Cleve, Altarpiece of the Lamentation of Christ (detail of Judas), ca. 1520–25. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

A sprawling canvas by Anthony van Dyck (a redhead himself), called The Taking of Christ (1618–20), depicts the moment Judas kisses Jesus on the Mount of Olives, identifying him to the Romans who ordered his arrest. This Baroque vision is dynamic and breathy: A sweeping diagonal, created by the throng of bodies lunging toward Jesus, draws the attention to the Savior’s face as Judas, his own visage covered by a mop of red hair, delivers the damning kiss. The traitor’s hair is here indiscernible from his beard; both blend into his similarly tinged skin and robes, putting Judas’s ruddy appearance into central focus.

Another florid Judas appears in Joos van Cleve’s Altarpiece of the Lamentation of Christ (ca. 1520–25) in a rendering of the Last Supper in the bottom panel. His cheekbones and nose are sharp, turned in profile to look at Jesus, whose beard also shows hints of a copper hue. It is not uncommon in the history of art for Jesus to also appear with auburn hair, but his features here are soft and idealized, creating a contrast with Judas’s harsh, wrinkled skin and coarse head of hair. (Paradoxically, on Jesus, red hair was seen as a sign of moral purity; in the Renaissance, red hair was fit for sinners and saints, but no one in between.)

John Everett Millais, Christ in the House of His Parents, 1849–50. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

In the 19th and 20th centuries, modern artists continued to employ the symbolism of red hair. Several figures continued the tradition of casting Jesus as an unapologetic ginger to suggest his otherness and divinity. Vincent van Gogh’s Pietà (After Delacroix) (1889) shows Christ with hair not unlike the artist’s own. The innocent Christ child in Pre-Raphaelite artist John Everett Millais’s Christ in the House of His Parents (1849–50) was famously decried by Charles Dickens as a “wry-necked, blubbering, redheaded boy, in a bed-gown.”

If red hair for Jesus suggests otherworldliness; for Mary, lust; and for Judas, degeneracy, the hair color in Edgar Degas’s and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec’s candid late 19th-century portrayals of Parisian nightlife does a bit of both. Toulouse-Lautrec’s redheads lack the idealized bodies of Lefebvre’s Magdalene and the fictionalized polish of Rossetti’s Ghirlandata. Instead, his works offer gritty glimpses into the sordid realities of Paris’s entertainers and prostitutes.

Edgar Degas, Woman at Her Toilette, 1900–05. Courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago.

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Rue des Moulins, 1894. Courtesy of the National Gallery of Art.

Toulouse-Lautrec’s Rue des Moulins (1894) is an oil-on-cardboard sketch that shows two women standing in line. Their stockings are pulled up to their thighs, blouses bunched up in their arms, cheeks rouged. One is blonde and slumped in exhaustion, while the other woman, a mess of vibrant red hair on top of her head, looks resigned. They’re being inspected for syphilis, a monthly requirement of working in a brothel (hence the lack of pants). The unnaturally bright hue found in Toulouse-Lautrec’s work isn’t so much an artistic exaggeration as a faithful depiction of the henna-dyed hair that many prostitutes and performers had—a look that helped them stand out in a brothel or on stage.

Degas’s Woman at Her Toilette (1900–05) similarly takes on the realities of modern, urban life. The intimate view of a naturally red-headed woman drying her hair after a bath is candid, rather than idealized or overly sexual. The bright red hue also shows up in Degas’s famous paintings of ballerinas, who frequently moonlighted as sex workers.

Redheads might always be considered beautiful or barbaric, saintly or sinister. From Queen Elizabeth I to Sansa Stark, the history of red hair in visual culture carries with it tales of prejudice and desire.

Sarah Dotson
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Jenna Gribbon, Luncheon on the grass, a recurring dream, 2020. Jenna Gribbon, April studio, parting glance, 2021. Jenna Gribbon, Silver Tongue, 2019