Books

The Histories of Ten Colors Through Multiple Lenses

Rather than merely tracing a visual history of determined hues, On Color considers them across multiple disciplines, including film and literature.

Cover jacket image of On Color by David Scott Kastan and Stephen Farthing (all images courtesy Yale University Press)

Books and writing about color abound these days, which should be quite unsurprising, since colors are always present in our lives.

However, unlike recent titles such as The Designer’s Dictionary of Color and The Secret Lives of Color, On Color, a joint effort between humanities professor David Scott Kastan and painter and writer Stephen Farthing, provides us with very little chromatic eye candy. In fact, rather than merely tracing a visuals-heavy history of a determined shade, On Color considers a particular shade across multiple disciplines, including film and literature. Each of the ten chapters is devoted to one color, including black, white, and gray. And while the titles given to the chapters — such “Roses are Red”, “Mixed Greens” and “At the Violet Hour” — are quite corny, and thankfully this element does not extend to the contents.  

Vincent van Gogh, “Basket with Six Oranges” (1888) private collection

The book excels when it focuses on a particular color explored through historical accounts and across various media. For example, it deftly shows how blue is both introspective (they use the wording “interior life”)  and the hue portraying man’s desire for transcendence. They use works by Picasso, Yves Klein, and film auteur Derek Jarman to prove their point. Similarly, The symbolic meaning of the color white is served through Greek, Roman and neo-classical statues, the painting of a hog-tied lamb by Zubarán (“Agnus Dei” 1635–1640), and the quest for the white whale in Moby Dick.

What’s more, Kastan, who is a Shakespeare scholar, loves using philology and etymology to show how the perception of a color changed through centuries: he cites Shakespeare’s “your orange tawny beard” and “orange tawny bill” in A Midsummer Night’s Dream as one of the earliest appearances of said color in literature, and notes how Old English had two cognate words, blaec and blac, the former corresponding to “black”, the latter meaning “shining” — a distinction which indicated that, back in the day, colors were differentiated not only by hue, but also by brilliance. Bypassing the constraints of traditional forms of visual art analysis is the book’s greatest strength.

Claude Monet, “Charing Cross Bridge, The Thames” (1903) Musée des Beaux-Arts de Lyon

On the flip side, though, the book falls short when it tries to branch out from art and cultural history to illustrate the less pleasant aspects of colors, such as racism and slavery. “Dyeing for Indigo” hastily tries to trace the story of indigo plantations and their toxic fumes, but crams too many facts into the chapter’s 13 pages. “Yellow Perils,” which deals with changes in the public perception of skin tones, and uses as an example the way Crayola changed the name of a pastel from “Flesh” to “Peach,” concludes flatly: “The point seems to be that skin color is not a visual reality but a cultural construction that creates and attaches meanings to colors we don’t actually see.”

Ishihara “Plate No. 11” (no date)

Despite its relative shortcomings, On Color is (perhaps unintentionally) funny. “Mixed Greens,” a meditation on the way specific colors were adopted by political parties, has the following reflection on the Green party: “To some climate skeptics, it is green only on the outside and red within,” they write. “The British political writer James Delingpole … calls it a movement of watermelons, for whom the environment is merely a proxy issue for an attack of global capitalism.” On the multitudes embodied by the color black, favored by ninjas, nuns, fascists and fashionistas alike, they write “[Black is] the color of abjection and of arrogance, of piety and of perversity, of restraint and of rebelliousness. It is the color of glamour, and it is the color of gloom.” Did we need a mastery round of alliteration?

In all, even though the visual appeal of On Color is quite limited, its meandering contents make it a great addition to the collection of anyone who is, to some degree, passionate about color.

One warning though: Kastan and Farthing do very little hand holding. All their artistic, cultural, historical, and literary references are barely introduced. They expect the reader to be very educated. Hopefully, that’s not too bothersome.

On Color, was published in May by Yale University Press.

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