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5 january 2023

Michel Pastoureau's Blanc is closely related to his Noir. White and black are inseparable companions and opposites – but, as Pastoureau argued in Noir, this black/white connection is an artifact of the early-modern period. It didn't consistently obtain earlier and it doesn't really any more, now that our world is breaking free of the printed page and we communicate instantly in images of living color.

As in his other color histories, Pastoureau goes back to the earliest human uses of color. Paleolithic cave painters used white sparingly compared to red, black, and brown; but they did use it, which entails a technology of isolating and deploying white pigments. Early dyers made less use of white, from what we can tell. All through antiquity, white was as hard to fix on fabric as black. In antiquity, black cloth was colored by soot, essentially extreme dirt; early whites were done the same way, staining linen and woolen items with chalk or other white residue that would soon wash out and have to be re-applied. Keeping Roman patrician woolen togas starkly white was a major industry.

In the European Middle Ages, white became associated with kingship, sanctity, and with both Christ and his mother Mary. Blue eventually became the primary color of the Virgin Mary, but white continued to appear in items associated with her, like the lily (which also became the regal emblem of France). Christ was a white lamb, the Holy Spirit a white dove; white swans and white unicorns (real animals to early medievals, Pastoureau claims) had Christological associations and figured in mystical, allegorical tales.

In the early modern period, white was one approved Protestant color, especially for the interiors of churches: whitewash became associated with egalitarian, refined, spiritual dimensions of worship, as opposed to Catholic spectacle and baroque excess. White was also a color associated with women and children, especially swaddled infants. Eventually white became the color of Western underwear: if it touched your skin, it had to be as white as possible. This was an odd and not entirely functional development: there was something symbolic about white people donning intimate white clothing. Being seen in your "shirt," Pastoureau argues, was worse than being naked: underwear represented "la nudité sociale, la déchéance suprême, tandis que la nudité totale symbolisait simplement l'état de nature" – social nudity, the ultimate degradation; whereas complete nakedness meant simply the state of nature (142).

Pastoureau is at his best, I think, when talking about the modern symbolism of the color white. These later chapters also include the book's most striking art plates, by major masters (Whistler, Monet, Degas) but also by a number of lesser-known but fascinating painters: Albert Marquet, Henri Gervex, Théodule Ribot. The 19th century, an age of cotton and bleach, made whiteness accessible to the masses. Entire professions, especially medicine and cookery, adopted whiteness as a guarantee of cleanliness. White spaces proliferated in the home, reaching an apogee of dazzle in the mid-20th century before pastels, avocados, and stainless steel emerged in counterpoint.

The 19th century also saw the rise of the white wedding. Earlier patriarchal dispensations in the West, Pastoureau explains, took a bride's virginity for granted. There may have been wishful thinking involved, but the semi-captivity of young women of quality meant that there was no need to symbolically re-emphasize their innocence. In the later modern era, folks were no longer so sure. Edmund Leighton's painting "The Wedding Register" (1920) epitomizes the symbolism of the bride in white, signing her name on the white pages of the book as her first wedded act. Even her literacy might have been suspect to a less emancipated culture, but the surplus of white fabric makes everything immaculate.

Pastoureau is also interesting on approximate, figural meanings of "white." White wine, for instance: it is no more white than red wine is red. But those color terms go way back into antiquity, vestiges of a very old distinction between red and white in which white means "clear" and red means "colored" at all. And so "white" means blank, empty, unmarked, unspoiled. French is especially rich in white idioms:

"Passer une nuit blanche" est une nuit sans sommeil et "un mariage blanc," un mariage non consommé … "Être connu comme le loup blanc" signifie être bien connu tant cet animal est rare et se repère au premier regard dans un meute de loups gris. (210-211)

To pass a "white night" is to go without sleep; a "white marriage" is one not consummated … "Like the white wolf" means being well-known, inasmuch as such animals are rare and easily picked at first sight out of a troop of grey wolves.

Pastoureau, Michel. Blanc: Histoire d'une couleur. Paris: Seuil, 2022.