This is the fifth major work on the history of colours written over the last two decades by the eminent French scholar Michel Pastoureau, and, he implies in his introduction, it may be the last. Taken together, the earlier volumes on blue (2001), black (2009), green (2013) and red (2017), plus the new book, represent ‘an edifice’ that he has been working to build for half a century: a history of colours in (for the most part) Europe from the ancient Greeks and Romans to the 18th century and beyond. Whatever misgivings one might have about the books themselves, they amount to an ambitious project deserving not merely respect but even a touch of awe. There are very few comparable enterprises: Marc Shell’s dazzling polymathic work on the cultural history of money is a rare example.
Pastoureau’s main aim is not simply to record how hues have been used, but to seek out the various values they have expressed and embodied in different times. In very broad strokes, he proposes that yellow was on the whole associated with benevolent, life-affirming qualities in the years up to the fifth century AD; then, from the fifth to the fifteenth centuries, it was an ‘ambiguous’ colour; since then, many of the negative connotations that developed in the Middle Ages have hardened, despite its agreeable associations with warmth, brightness and vitality. Modern opinion polls confirm that it is one of the least favourite colours of all nations.
The first section, ‘A Beneficial Color’, suggests that from the time that Palaeolithic cave paintings were produced to about the fifth century AD, yellow had pleasing associations with light and life and plenty (Pastoureau chooses to define gold as a subcategory of yellow, which might strike his more rigorous readers as a bit of a cop-out). It was the colour of the sun and of the plants that quicken in the sun, from wheat to lemons. Apollo had blond hair, and Aphrodite blonde. There were odd exceptions: with regards to clothing, the Romans considered yellow suitable only for women, so that a man who wore yellow was characterised as effeminate.
The Judeo-Christian cultures were less given to celebrating the colour. The Bible is all but silent on yellow, as it is on most colours. The original Hebrew Scriptures refer to a few materials celebrated for their colour – gold, bronze, ivory – but are almost entirely lacking in chromatic adjectives, which begin to enter the sacred texts only when translators render, say, ‘a magnificent cloth’ as pannus rubeus (‘a red cloth’). Some 95 per cent of the colours evoked in the Bible are black, white and red. Yellow is present principally in the material form of gold, wax, honey, saffron and wheat.
The second section, titled ‘An Ambiguous Color’, covers the sixth to the fifteenth centuries. It was in this time that yellow, still largely absent from religious culture, eventually became a major feature of heraldry. The practices of martial decoration helped to ensure that there would be six basic colours of European culture: white, yellow, red, blue, black and green.
The most significant development was the increasing association of yellow with vice and evil – often with the deadly sin of envy (incidentally, though green may be the traditional colour of envy in high culture, in playgrounds of the 1960s, ‘yeller’ meant ‘jealous’, possibly because it was a close soundalike). And though the New Testament says virtually nothing about the appearance of Judas, from the 12th century onwards he was frequently given two key attributes: red hair and a bright yellow robe. One of the illustrations Pastoureau chooses for this section is Giotto’s wondrous Judas Receiving Payment for His Betrayal in the Scrovegni Chapel. As Pastoureau goes on to detail, Judas’s clothing stressed his identity as a Jew. The rule that Jews must declare their identity by wearing yellow garments began to be enforced from the early 13th century onwards.
The third and final section, which examines the long and complex period from the 14th century to the present day, is entitled ‘An Unpopular Color’, though this is a little misleading as it mentions more than a few moments when yellow became highly fashionable.
Barely forty pages are devoted to the years since 1900. The Gilets Jaunes scrape in on the penultimate page and there are passing glimpses of yellow sporting outfits, the yellow liveries of centrist political parties, yellow taxis, the Nazi yellow star and the widespread use of yellow on warning signs because of its high visibility, especially when paired with black letters.
As in his previous books, Pastoureau is hampered by his almost complete lack of interest in the non-Francophone world. There’s no mention, for instance, of the Yellow Pages, only a single reference to the Sinophobic idea of the ‘yellow peril’ (a large and complex topic to which Christopher Frayling recently devoted an entire book) and none to the old-fashioned racist term ‘high yellow’. Popular culture barely seems to exist for Pastoureau. He says nothing about one of the most significant deployments of yellow in mass entertainment over the last thirty years: as the standard flesh tone for the characters in The Simpsons, a topic ably discussed by Alexander Theroux in one of his own witty books about colour.
Cinema? There is no reference to the once-notorious soft-porn movie I am Curious (Yellow), nor to John Ford’s classic western She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, or to the Yellow Brick Road of The Wizard of Oz and Sir Elton John. Speaking of pop, The Beatles’ ‘Yellow Submarine’ is missing, as are Coldplay’s ‘Yellow’, Donovan’s silly hit ‘Mellow Yellow’ and (apologies) ‘(Is This the Way to) Amarillo’.
Non-Francophone literature is also excluded from the feast. Not even The Yellow Book, a hugely influential journal in the 1890s, is deemed worthy of note; nor is Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s celebrated horror story The Yellow Wallpaper, a classic of early feminism. And though he does note the term ‘yellow press’, he makes no reference to James Joyce, who sometimes used it to dismiss journalists. Joyce was, it seems, all but besotted by the colour. In the last chapter of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man alone, we find: ‘It was a great day for European culture, he said, when you made up your mind to swear in yellow’; ‘MacCann is a sulphur-yellow liar’; ‘Damn your yellow insolence’; ‘that yellow pancake-eating excrement’. The same chapter begins with a sordid vision of yellow dripping, and Stephen’s poetic meditation on yellow ivy and yellow ivory. There is probably a PhD to be written on Joyce and yellow. In Dubliners it is the colour of corruption and decay, and on the very first page of Ulysses we meet Buck Mulligan in a yellow dressing gown.
Visually, the book is generally handsome, occasionally gorgeous. Some of the paintings included – by Giotto, Vermeer, Caravaggio, Rembrandt, Cézanne and Gauguin – are fairly well known. Others are more obscure: the cover, for instance, shows František Kupka’s The Yellow Scale, which shows a stern-faced aesthete somewhat reminiscent of George Sanders wearing a yellow robe, leaning on a yellow pillow and holding a yellow book in his right hand – a fine image. Yellow is worth buying as much for its sumptuous images as its scholarship, and it makes for pleasantly soothing reflections in the anxious days wondering whether Operation Yellowhammer will be triggered.