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Let’s Hear It For Yellow!

December 9, 2019

I read the most interesting column this morning while drinking coffee looking out on a gray, cloudy, chilly Madison.  Perhaps the lack of sunshine is the reason this column resonated or perhaps due to the fact yellow is my favorite color.  This winter I can be spotted in a yellow coat, yellow ski hat, and yellow sneakers.  One can say many things about me but being color-phobic would not be one of them.

So it was interesting to read the color yellow has had such a hard time in modern times.  I can not think of a more joyous color!  Jeff Jacoby writes in The Boston Globe the following.

Of all the primary colors, yellow is the least popular. When respondents are asked by pollsters to name their favorite color, blue always comes in first by a wide margin and yellow always comes last. Such surveys have been conducted since at least the late 19th century, Pastoureau notes, and nothing seems to alter the results — neither geography, nor history, nor culture, nor sex.

That wouldn’t always have been the case. Yellow was much admired in ancient Egypt, where it was linked to Ra, the sun god, and it evoked similar positive meanings in pagan Greece, where deities were often depicted with golden-yellow hair, chariots, and dress. Yellow enjoyed a vogue among upper-class Florentine women in the early 14th century, and it was particularly favored by King Henry VIII of England. In fact, writes Pastoureau, Henry liked yellow so much that he wore outfits prominently featuring that shade each time he remarried “and demanded that the new queen and all the court wear it as well.”

But for most of the past millennium, yellow has been a disfavored color, for reasons bodily, religious, and political.

To medieval physicians, it was significant that yellow was the color of urine and bile. Whereas red and green indicated good health and youthful vigor, Pastoureau explains, yellow was connected with “decline, desiccation, aging.” It was “a barren, dull, withered, and more or less faded color,” and its symbolism became increasingly negative.

By the late Middle Ages, Christian art routinely depicted Judas, the apostle who betrayed Jesus, wearing a yellow robe. Images celebrating the triumph of the Church frequently used yellow to portray Jews and the synagogue. In 1269, King Louis IX of France — later canonized as Saint Louis — issued an edict ordering all Jews in his realm to wear a yellow badge in order that they “be recognized and distinguished from Christians.” At various times, other outcast groups — lepers, prostitutes, and thieves, among others — were also required to wear such humiliating insignia. Centuries later, of course, Nazi Germany would impose the yellow star on European Jews as a prelude to extermination.

In the modern era, yellow retains its negative aura. “A man would never wear yellow unless he wanted to draw attention to himself or deliberately transgress social codes,” writes Patourneau. In theater posters and political cartoons, artists “made yellow the color of both the deceivers and the deceived.” It was also the color of sadness and abandonment: In Edward Hopper’s 1927 famous painting The Automat , a woman sits in a lonely cafeteria, dejectedly drinking a cup of coffee. She wears a stylish yellow hat, but far from dispelling the scene’s melancholy mood, it only intensifies it.

Yellow: The History of a Color is the fifth such volume that Pastoureau has produced. Like its predecessors, which recount the visual and cultural histories of blue (2001), black (2009), green (2013), and red (2017), this one is elegant and engaging — as alluring to gaze at as it is compelling to read. Yellow may be an unsettling color, but this is a lovely and striking book.

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