Yellow: The History of a Color

Yellow: The History of a Color
by Michel Pastoureau; translated from the French by Jody Gladding

Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ, 2019
240 pp. Trade, $39.95
ISBN: 978-0-691-19825-5.

Reviewed by
Giovanna L. Costantini
March 2020

Yellow is Michel Pastoureau’s most recent addition to his series on the cultural history of color that to date includes books on Red (2017), Green (2014), Black (2009), and Blue (2001).  It continues an interdisciplinary investigation into a history of color as a socially constructed concept whose vocabulary, codes and values have been determined by distinct and identifiable cultures.  Pastoureau’s focus is that of European societies from Roman antiquity to the eighteenth century based on almost forty years of seminars conducted at the École Pratique des Hautes Études and the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales in France.  It includes such topics as color etymology and taxonomy; minerals and pigments; prehistoric ochres; myth, lore and allegory; medieval heraldry; dyestuffs; color physiology; funerary traditions; iconographic conventions; robes and vestments; and medicinal functions. Lavishly illustrated, it is beautiful to behold.

Unlike the semiotic continuities of colors treated in previous volumes, in Yellow there is much disparity and save for certain strains of medieval imagery, one can point to few threads of connection among the color’s connotations. This is due in part to the wide variability of associations attached to the color among disparate societies, epochs and uses, from cave paintings to Gauguin’s Yellow Christ. But it is also true that the luster of yellow often belies an assortment of denigrated meanings assigned over time that here receive some emphasis.  One source of ambiguity, Pastoureau points out, owes to the color’s natural mineral identification with the precious metal gold. The yellow pigment in many cultures derived from orpiment, a highly toxic arsenic sulfide termed arsenikon in ancient Greece, zarnikh (as in zar for gold) in Persia. Pliny called it auripigmentum or gold paint, a term retained by medieval writers until it was later translated as orpigment or oropimente.  Widely used in the East where yellow was the exclusive color of the emperor, it was known in Britain as “King’s yellow.” The Latin adjective aureus continued to be identified with gold metal for its precious, reflective value and for its resemblance to the light of the sun where it informed the cosmic symbolism of funerary art, religion and sovereignty. In matters more mundane, since at least the sixth century BCE gold coins stamped with heads of bulls or rams or lions—later kings or emperors—were used to pay the armies of antiquity. Pastoureau illustrates a stunning gold stater of Philip II of Macedon that bears the head of Apollo wreathed in laurel, held in the Cabinet des Médailles in France’s Bibliotheque Nationale.

Despite an abundant use of gold in mobiliary art, Hiberno-Saxon manuscripts and Byzantine mosaics, by the early Middle Ages yellow in its painted applications had fallen into disfavor in western Christendom due to vernacular associations with treason, chicanery and villainy as well as cowardice, folly, sickness (as in jaundice) and decline. Related to a medieval theory of humours, yellow was associated with jealousy envy and hatred.  Likened to gall in animals and a choleric temperament as violent and unstable, yellow was a color much despised. One persistent strain of association occurred in depictions of Judas wearing yellow robes as in Giotto’s Scrovegni Chapel in Padua where he is shown receiving payment for his betrayal.  In the following century a manuscript from Prague depicts Jan Hus being burned alive for heresy in a yellow tunic.  These and other notorious figures form part of wider categories of exclusion that for centuries perpetuated discrimination against Christian and non-Christian outcasts, extending to the yellow star worn by Jews during World War II and to derogatory terms for Asians.  

But there are also amusing anecdotes about the color’s history.  When Cicero’s personal enemy Clodius (Publius Clodius Pulcher, 92-53 BCE) attempted to seduce the wife of Caesar, he disguised himself as a woman by wearing a long yellow dress dyed with saffron that Cicero considered a sure sign of his debauchery. One chapter is devoted to Bile and Urine containing color charts of variously colored urine flasks illustrated by way of a charming color wheel. The fifteenth century Tractatus de pestilentia was used to diagnose medical conditions by color—but also by smelling and sometimes tasting.  In other medicinal contexts, master physicians and doctors advised showing the color yellow to a man weak and near death in order to give him back his strength. Then there was the custom of painting doors and windows of a house yellow if persons went bankrupt and other more diabolical associations with the sulfurous content of orpiment.

From the Renaissance through modernity, there are innumerable resplendent uses of yellow among painters: a Portrait of a Woman in Yellow by Alessio Baldovinetti; jewel-like Venetian brocades and satins; brilliant flourishes in Jan Vermeer and Samuel van Hoogstraten.  But had Pastoureau ventured further he would have thrilled to Vincent Van Gogh’s Sunflowers; the fresh butter skies of Camille Pissarro; Claude Monet’s summer Haystacks; and Paul Cézanne’s lemons.  There is exhilarating color straight from the tube in paintings by Henri Matisse, André Derain and the Fauves, and strident Expressionism in works by Vassily Kandinsky and Franz Marc.  Responding to discoveries in physics and neuroscience and to the color theories of Robert Boyle, Isaac Newton, Goethe, Otto Runge, Johannes Itten and Michel Chevreul, artists such as Paul Signac, Robert and Sonia Delaunay, Kazimir Malevich and Sol LeWitt experimented both materially and immaterially with divisionism, complementary colors, color contrast, retinal perception and afterimage in ways that defied conventional cultural symbolism.  

Today, notwithstanding yellow’s many national and commercial applications from the heraldic color of the Thurn and Taxis family who invented yellow taxis, to the maillots jaunes of Tour de France cyclists, yellow retains a high conceptual value. Informed less by the literary tradition of medieval history than by nature and the universe, yellow resists confinement.  It limns the intertidal coast with lichen as sonorous as the morning.