Untangling the Symbolism of Art History’s Most Famous Redheads
Art Business

Untangling the Symbolism of Art History’s Most Famous Redheads

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), […]

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