Yellow – the History of a Color by Michel Pastoureau

Reviewed by Wendy and Ian Lipke

Yellow – the History of a Color is the work of Michel Pastoureau, a renowned authority on colour, and forms part of a series involving the colours blue, black, green and red. His latest work, Yellow – the History of a Color, is a square, black, hard-covered book with a yellow paper cover showing the oil on canvas, The Yellow Scale by Frantisch Kupka.

This book tells the fascinating story of yellow’s evolving place in art, religion, literature and science from its sacred and symbolic status in antiquity, through its demonic associations with lawlessness when tinged with green, but in its pure state, still engendering feelings of pleasure and abundance, to its positive position in Asian societies and its lasting status as the colour of Buddhism. The frontispiece offers a comment by Goethe:

Yellow is a gay, soft and joyous color, but in poor light it quickly becomes unpleasant, and the slightest mixing makes it dirty, ugly and uninteresting.

In a brilliant introductory essay Pastoureau traces human knowledge of colour as a material object, a skin that envelops the body, then a weakening of sunlight coming into contact with bodies, an Aristotelian idea that remained until Newton demonstrated the existence of the spectrum. In our own day, scientists are split into camps that perceive colour as wave lengths, or perception associated with memory, knowledge and imagination. Each camp differs from the other but both differ again from the social scientist. Pastoureau’s book expands upon this human sciences view, which claims there are no categorised colours, “there are only infinite colorations forming an improbable continuum” (8).

Pastoureau relates that most of us can identify an object that is a given colour but none can explain what a particular colour is. Yellow is notorious for ‘playing hide-and-seek’ with researchers, sometimes present, sometimes inconspicuous, often overwhelmed by gold. Pastoureau describes his present work as follows:

…this book is very much a history of yellow, constructed around a few solid axes allowing us to find our way in a shifting and multiple chromatic labyrinth (9).

Writing about a colour is not the sort of thing one does every day. Pastoureau reminds us of the complexity of colour when he writes:

A Color never occurs alone; it only derives its meaning, it only fully ‘functions’ from the social, lexical, artistic or symbolic perspective insofar as it is combined or contrasted with one or many other colours. Hence, it is impossible to consider it in isolation. To speak of yellow is necessarily to speak of red, green, blue, and even white and black (9).

The book is divided into historical sections, but the focus of his research lies with European societies between Roman antiquity and the eighteenth century. In specific terms, his first section covers the time up to the fifth century and has its location in Egypt, Greece and Rome. This section is called A Beneficial Color. This is followed by the Paleolithic Period and yellow’s role in the early Christian Church. Yellow appears as An Ambiguous Color in the sixth to the fifteenth centuries and An Unpopular Color in the fourteenth to the twenty-first centuries.  Several pages of notes, a bibliography and a page of credits complete the book.

Section One is a good representation of what appears in the remaining sections. It is gorgeously rich in this thing we’re not sure about but which we call colour. Yellow predominates and the text is interspersed with colour illustrations which are dynamic and, in the case of the Pompeian myths, exciting. This is one example of many that not only break up the text, thus making it more pleasing to read, but also leave the reader awestruck by the quality and appropriateness of the images and the knowledge that the author must have spent a very long time making a judicious selection.

Though focussing mostly on European societies, this book also highlights comparisons with other cultures from East Asia, India, Africa and South America. Gold is a continuing distraction since its use is universal. Pastoureau has made a conscious decision to not ignore it but to take care to distinguish it from yellow. Gold is minimised in Pastoureau’s thinking in favour of his true focus, yellow.

Section One has divisions relating to dyeing in colour and another to dressing in colour. These are cleverly placed to lead into the famous Clodius Affair, itself a clever introduction to the subject of women’s underclothes. There is a chapter for the language buff on the lessons of the lexicon, an analysis of words used in various societies at various times to describe the word, yellow. Section One finishes with a look at what the Bible teaches us about the place yellow occupied in ancient Near Eastern cultures. The answer may astound you.

Section Two takes up the issue of symbolic interpretation of colours. Achieving a symbolic focus involves a dematerialisation (the colour from the object) while retaining the meaning that defines the object. This section explains how this complex process worked itself out during the medieval period. Section Three reveals how yellow, associated with thieves and Judas-like treachery, became devalued and less-conspicuous in polite society. Pastoureau draws attention to the Reformation as an explanation, drawing attention to contemporary churches “as stark as synagogues” (140). He goes on for many pages to show where and how ‘yellow’ was treated by artists, the Royal Court, painters, sports stars and the general public.

This book has been translated into English by Jody Gladding, an American translator and author of four books of poems. Michel Pastoureau is the author whose many books have been translated into more than thirty languages. He is renowned as an historian and an authority on colours, symbols and heraldry. He holds the position of emeritus director of studies at the Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes di la Sorbonne in Paris.

Yellow – the History of a Color


By Michel Pastoureau

Princeton UP

ISBN: 978-0-691-19825-5

240pp; $US39.95

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