Book Report: Yellow, the History of a Color

Rating: 4 out of 5.

There’s a reason you haven’t had any book reports in the past week or two, and that’s because it’s taken me a while to get through Yellow, the History of a Color by Michel Pastoureau (2019). This is one in a series of works by this French author, all of which detail how a particular color has been used in European history. I’ve already done his book on red and his book on blue (apparently before I started this blog), and I still have green and black to go through. Not only are these books fascinating to read, but they have rich illustrations, are on thick, quality paper, and look darned good on the coffee table.

The work of art on the cover reminds me so much of my friend JD in New York. Such ennui.

The cover of the book shows a painting called “Study in Yellow,” I think, and it depicts a man sitting in a wicker chair, dressed in a yellow robe, holding his finger in a yellow book to keep his place, and dangling a cigarette out of the other hand. He is looking right at the observer as if to say, “Leave me alone in my foppish revelry.” It’s a good image for the color yellow, which has seldom been a popular color, no matter how cheery yellow flowers are.

Nonetheless, I got greenish-yellow alstroemeria to decorate the condo while we are in South Carolina (greenish yellow is particularly unpopular through history).

One of the most important issues surrounding yellow is that its association with gold at least got it some popularity in ancient times. And, it was one of the earliest colors humans could draw or dye in. So, it did okay, especially with the Greeks and Egyptians.

As time went by, yellow got more and more negative associations. Judas, who betrayed Christ, always wears yellow in paintings (though the Bible didn’t say anything about that). Countries made Jewish people wear yellow hats, insignia, or clothing, long before World War II. Yellow was associated with liars, cowards, prostitutes, and other people of questionable morals, including musicians. It got pretty depressing for a long time. Protestants didn’t help, with all their modesty, dislike of adornment, and fondness for black and grey. Fun times.

Painting by Giotto, showing bad ole Judas with his yellow robe, red hair, and sack of betrayal coins in his bad ole left hand. Plus a Devil.

Thank goodness for the 18th Century, because everyone was happy and people could wear yellow for fun. Then came the 19th and 20th Centuries, which were somber and drab. And thank goodness for painters who used it more and more. There’s a lot of useful information on pigments and dyes, and Pastourneau theorizes that one reason people didn’t wear much yellow is that unless you used expensive colorants like saffron, most yellows were drab and dreary, and not very colorfast.

This painting by Jan Steen is one of my favorites. Not only does it show that Dutch peasants wore yellow, but there’s a dog, a broken egg, and a kid looking right at you.

What’s the good news? Yellow is back in this century, and it’s used more in clothing, homes furnishings, and other areas. I know I personally have a yellow bedroom, and it cheers me up. I’m not down on yellow! Living on the ranch, surrounded by yellow flowers, golden hay and grass, golden autumn willow leaves, and such, I have come to love yellow. So, I’m glad it’s back!

There is so much more about yellow in this book that I can’t summarize well enough to include; it’s worth getting or borrowing from the library. It’s not a good audio book, because the illustrations are half the enjoyment. I’m happy that I still have the green book and the black book to read later.

Much of this morning, you could not tell where the sky stopped and the sea started.

But, now I’m going to finish my knitting project or ELSE, and do some serious work on what’s going on with my mental health. At least I can ruminate with an ocean view!

At least there’s foam to brighten the gloom.