The exhibition begins with a piece of cloth dating to 300 B.C., its red tint still visible. The dye was used in pre-Hispanic illustrated codices and in the codices produced around the time of the 1521 Spanish Conquest.
Spanish chronicles of the conquest marvel at the vivid colors of cochineal dyestuff for sale in the Aztec capital, Tenochtitlán, and the first shipment soon left for Spain. By midcentury, as the curator Georges Roque writes in the show’s catalog, cochineal was being transported in bulk to Seville.
Because cochineal was the source of a more intense and lasting red than any of the pigments then available, demand soared for it as a dye for sumptuous European silks, velvets and tapestries.
Louis XIV ordered the upholstery of the chairs and the royal bed curtains at Versailles to be dyed with cochineal. So rich was the trade that cochineal was second only to silver as the most valuable export from Spain’s American colonies, more profitable than even gold, according to scholars cited by Mr. Roque.
He argues that painters rapidly adopted cochineal to “obtain tonalities as rich, as saturated, as brilliant” as the fabrics that dyers were producing in the ports of early modern Europe.
The first European work of the show here is Tintoretto’s “Christ Carried to the Tomb,” produced in the 1550s, in which the painter, the son of a Venetian dyer, used cochineal for the dense, almost tactile images of the fabric worn by the mourners.
Titian began to use cochineal in his works after the middle of the century, as did Veronese, whose “Martyrdom of Saint Justine” is in the exhibition.
Like the Venetians, the painters who adopted cochineal most consistently worked in port cities. Mr. Roque points to Diego Velázquez and Francisco de Zurbarán in Seville, and Rubens, Van Dyck and Rembrandt in Antwerp and Amsterdam.
Zurbarán’s “Penitent Magdalene,” from the mid-17th century, shows its subject leaning on a…