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1 december 2019

Yellow is my favorite color. I know it's supposed to be blue; everybody says blue is their favorite color. But my obstinate championing of yellow, though eccentric, has its upside. When I get presents, when I get new clothes, when I buy stuff I may need to leave around the house or the office and still be able to claim as mine, I can often fall back on yellow as my default distinction. If something is yellow, from a ballpoint pen to an umbrella, it must be Tim's.

Yellow is an earthy, organic color. Despite or because of yellow's commonness, Michel Pastoureau, in his recent book Jaune, finds that it took a long time for yellow to emerge as a distinct concept in Western thought. "Nature rarer uses yellow / Than another hue," claimed Emily Dickinson, but the woman was simply wrong. Yellow is everywhere, from spring flowers to summer grain to autumn leaves to sunshine itself. Yellow is the color of mud and of urine … and I think there we see why yellow has few champions. It is an intensely organic color, but one that we associated with sickness, waste, and dirt.

Jaune, like the other books in Pastoureau's color series, is Eurocentric, indeed openly Francocentric. But France has been inhabited for a long time. Pastoureau, without leaving his own country, can start his narrative of yellow with the ochers that cave-painters daubed on the walls of the great French archeological sites. Later, yellow would be a common color in the Roman world. Latin has many terms for yellows, but no generic concept of "yellow." Roman women were especially drawn to yellow, which was a basic of feminine dress, especially in the late-imperial period.

But yellow acquired bad connotations early on. It would become the color of Judas Iscariot, and thence of cowardice, treachery, and Jewry (in the Christian imagination, that is). It is not long since "yellow" was an insult in English; such abuse now seems old-fashioned, indeed racist. It is not long since the "Yellow Peril" of Asian immigration was feared in the United States.

But no color is simple in axiological terms. Even as it was fading into opprobrium in the Middle Ages, yellow (Pastoureau explains) re-emerged as a key concept in heraldry. Armorial experts called yellow "or," the French word for "gold." Gold has a symbiotic relationship with yellow in the history of color. But the "or" of heraldry is usually not executed with gold leaf, but with various yellow pigments like orpiment. "Or" is an abstract, emblematic color idea, not a distinct hue, but it's very much what we would now call yellow; and many a noble family of the medieval and early-modern periods brandished yellow arms.

Yellows, nevertheless, were not a popular color family in the heyday of Western art, unless a painter needed to represent Judas, who always appeared in a yellow cloak. Vermeer liked his yellows – Proust, as Pastoureau notes, celebrated a little expanse of yellow wall in Vermeer's View of Delft. Vermeer also participated in the negative associations of yellow, giving his Procuress a strident yellow top for the customer behind her to grope. And in the 18th century, a brief vogue for chinoiserie led to yellow decorations surfacing in western Europe for a while. Fragonard and other decoratively-minded 18th-century painters used a lot of yellow – particularly a volcanic pigment called Naples yellow – and of course Turner, at times, seems to use nothing but yellow. But before the 20th century, they were the exceptions. In collections of 19th-century art, a painting like Tissot's Evening, now at Paris' Musée d'Orsay, stands out like the scandal that Tissot probably intended it (mildly) to represent.

The Fauves, however, brought yellows roaring back into high art, often yellows found nowhere in nature. From Van Gogh to the Fauves (especially Derain and Matisse) and the Nabis (Sérusier, Bonnard), and then a wide range of other post-Impressionist painters, yellow once again became a force in the French palette. Here is Bonnard's Garden Steps (1940):

Pastoureau notes the equivocal associations of yellow in contemporary politics. The current German flag is black, yellow, and red, somewhat fortuitously echoed by parties on the right, center, and left that have adopted those colors as representative. Yellow is absent from the American political map, which is a red-blue affair – as is the UK, though red and blue have reversed values. Yellow, though, is sometimes used in British maps for local nationalist and "other" parties, to contrast with the two-party system. In Italy, Cinque Stelle adopted yellow as a previously unaligned color. As Pastoureau's Jaune was going to press, the gilets jaunes made the electric yellow of safety vests a symbol for outsider resistance in France.

Pastoureau says quite a bit about sport, where yellow has flourished. As in heraldry, yellow is highly visible and makes a great team color. Many soccer clubs wear yellow proudly. Several American football teams have yellow as at least a trim color, and many American college teams feature bright yellow uniforms. Although, when you look up the official names of those yellows, most of them claim that they're really "gold." One prestigious but somewhat annoying American football power insists that their yellow is "maize." But even if we root for laundry, we rarely pick the laundry we root for by its colors.

Pastoureau, Michel. Jaune: Histoire d'une couleur. Paris: Seuil, 2019.