The Color of Populism

In his 1990 Three Rival Versions of Moral Inquiry, noted Hibernian-American philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre laid out three philosophical methods that competed for dominance in the Western world at the end of the 19th century: the encyclopedic, the genealogical, and the traditional. The genealogical, represented by the work of Friedrich Nietzsche, sought to present an evolutionary history of the development (and/or deterioration) of Western thought. Genealogical thinking is predicated upon the ability of humans in the developed world to stand outside of history as reflective observers of history’s ebb and flow. Although within Nietzsche’s work there are certain things that present as “real” (such as the Will to Power), any history is a history of all too human ideas, which, in the end, “signify nothing.” Thus, there is usually—but not always—an unfortunately nihilistic cast to the genealogical approach.

At the same time, even for those who recognize the blind foolishness of nihilism, the genealogical approach has helped to initiate the happy postmodern vogue of grand historical narratives of the development of various cultural and intellectual phenomenon. One figure who, during the autumn of his career has become one of the most prolific craftsmen of grand narratives of cultural development, is French historian Michel Pastoureau. The author of numerous scholarly and what could be called ‘middle brow’ tomes, Pastoureau has reached world-wide fame as the author of the various histories of color. Having published explorations of blue, black, green, and red, Pastoureau’s most recent (and what looks to be his final) examination is of how Westerners have perceived and understood the color yellow.

In all of his works, Pastoureau’s central thesis is that there is no natural human understanding of any particular color, nor is there a natural definition of a color. Colors are rather, for Pastoureau, cultural constructions. Green, for example, was the color of love and desire long before red, and neither the sky nor the sea were considered ‘blue’ until relatively recently in Western history. As Pastoureau argues in Yellow: The History of a Color, even the concept of color itself has changed. Color was once thought to be a material thing; then it was perceived as light itself, followed by the recognition that color is (allegedly) fundamentally a sensation experienced within the human subject. Interestingly, as Pastoureau notes, the word ‘color’ itself is derived from the Latin word celare, which means ‘to conceal’ as well as the Greek word khrōs, which means ‘skin’ or covering. Color was thus, Pastoureau argues, some “thing” that covered everything.

In the world of prehistoric Europe, yellow, like green and blue, was not considered an important cultural color—although yellow clay does appear in some cave paintings such as that of a woolly rhinoceros of the Paleolithic Chauvet cave. Yellow (along with green) entered into European cultural consciousness at the dawn of the classical period, and it became an important symbol of natural phenomena such as gold, the sun, wheat, honey, and blonde hair.

Gold, of course, was one of the most pronounced manifestations of the color yellow in the ancient world. Beginning in the Neolithic and continuing into the Bronze Age, gold became an important symbol of wealth. Initially hoarded in the form of various handicrafts (Pastoureau points to an especially rich hoard found in Bulgaria), with the invention of metal coins by the Greeks, gold became a medium of exchange. Moreover, with the advent of gold hoarding and exchange, a number of early European myths developed warning of the perils of gold hoarding.

The Greek poet Hesiod, of course, describes the first age of humankind as the blissful and peaceful “golden age” or “golden race.” Heracles, having killed his wife and children, is forced by his cousin Eurystheus, King of Argos, to undergo twelve tasks. His eleventh was to steal the golden apples from the Hesperides, the daughters of Atlas and Night. Having seized the golden apples, Heracles gave them to Athena who returned them to their rightful owner, who was, in fact, Hera, queen of the gods. This story, like many in the ancient pantheon, is replete with deep philosophical and psychological meaning, but, as Pastoureau notes, one of its central messages is, quite simply, “thou shalt not steal”—and thou shalt especially not steal gold. The much more brutal and tragic tale of Jason and Medea is initiated by Jason and his companions’ search for the Golden Fleece. Pastoureau points out that the initial fulcrum of the story, the fleece itself, is quickly forgotten in the tale as it is boiled by Medea as part of a magic ritual. The central point is that the search for gold is a perilous and ultimately futile and dangerous act. The story of Midas, as well as that of Siegfried, the Nibelungs, and the infamous and tragic Rheingold, later made famous by Richard Wagner, likewise helped to fashion the association of not just gold, but the color yellow itself, with a host of unpleasant vices.

In the ancient world, on the other hand, in addition to treacherous gold, yellow was also linked to the sun. The ancient Hebrews were among the few peoples (if not the only people) to posit the idea that God Himself was not identical with the sun. For the Greeks, the golden Helios (who later became the Roman Sol) was, in fact, a minor deity and was infamous as a spy on the misdeeds of gods and men alike. The golden (haired) Apollo was much more significant, as were the equally radiantly blonde Athena, Demeter, Hermes, and Aphrodite, who, as Pastoureau reminds us, would wash her hair in the River Scamander to make it even blonder. As a result, in the classical world, yellow was not only associated with treachery and greed, but also with vitality and beauty.

In ancient Rome, women wore yellow drawn from saffron, weld, and broom dyes; indeed, yellow was the most common color for the stola or long dress. Pastoureau quotes from the Roman poet Ovid, who in his notorious Art of Love describes the fashionable yellow dress of Roman women during the Augustan age: “Elsewhere you see the color of the chestnuts and almonds of Amaryllis, and that of the cloth to which has given its name.” A yellow scarf in ancient Rome was worn by the devotees of Artemis-Diana, the chaste goddess of the hunt. The Romans further used a number of terms to describe shades of yellow, including chryos (honey yellow), krokinos (saffron yellow), as well as the most popular flavus, which positively refers to the natural yellows found in wheat, honey, animal furs, and blond hair. However, the Romans refused to refer to the blond hair of northern European barbarians with the flattering flavus, preferring (usually) the less flattering luridus or pallidus—the Romans even had the word galbinus, derived from the German gelb, which Pastoureau (pejoratively) translates as “yellow in the German manner.”

Despite the prominence of gold in early Medieval Christendom, the color yellow was largely absent from the first centuries of Christian discourse. However, with the emergence of heraldry in the twelfth century as well as the association of the color yellow with Judas as well as Jews living in Medieval Europe, the presence of the yellow—or what the medieval French referred to as or, a term specifically applied to the yellow used in heraldry—was so prominent as to encourage the emergence of yellow as one of the basic colors in the European palette. Furthermore, among the variously colored knights of chivalric romance, the yellow knight was often associated with wisdom and calm, although, at times, he could also be associated with treachery. During the medieval period, blond hair was also noted for its nobility and was given a number of flattering adjectives in medieval French such as luisans or reluisans (shining), ondoiants (wavy), or even eshevelés (uncombed) and tors (shaggy). The word ‘blond’ itself is of mysterious Germanic origin and denotes not just a color, but the moral and aesthetic qualities of youth, nobility, and courtesy as the hair it described was represented in the classical period. Interestingly, the brunette Queen Guinevere is known for her beauty—her brown hair does not detract from this beauty. However, Arthur’s unfaithful wife is given this hair color as a symbol of her treachery. Nonetheless, interestingly and ironically, the tragically unfaithful Queen Iseult herself became the medieval icon of blond beauty. For men, blondness was likewise a sign of nobility and beauty. However, brown and black hair supplanted blondeness among men during the fifteenth century as Italy became the center of European cultural production, but both blonde hair and yellow dress were as popular among Italian women as they were among their Roman ancestors.

Yellow was not excessively given a positive meaning by medieval Europeans. During the thirteenth century, yellow became associated with the vice of envy. Pastoureau notes that the change in the moral character of the color yellow could derive from the Latin word for bile, fel, which in its objective case is felon. In the famous tales of the mischievous fox, Le Roman de Renart, the title character, the fox Renart, is dipped in a dyer’s yellow in one scene. Disguised in yellow, Renart is capable of more trickery and deception: moreover, Renart has a yellow shield in his legal battle with the wolf Ysengrin whose red shield symbolizes the wolf’s violence. The treacherous Ganelon, in some late medieval versions of The Song of Roland, carries with him a yellow shield and banner and is dressed in yellow. In the late medieval and early modern period, traitors to the crown could have their windows and doors painted yellow—and yellow could also be the color of heresy and heretics, with Jan Hus being burnt at the stake in a long yellow robe on July 6, 1415. After the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215, the color yellow was also associated with Jews who, in late medieval Europe, often wore yellow stars or wheels, conical hats, or yellow belts. Pastoureau provides a photo of Konrad Witz’s The Synagogue, which depicts the Jewish people as a humiliated and blind woman dressed in yellow. Pastoureau notes that in Islam as well, yellow was associated with Jewish people.

With the explosive advent of European painting during the Renaissance, yellow returns to its place as a multifarious and diverse aesthetic and symbolic phenomenon. Yellow also remained the color of choice for female dress—gaining special prominence among northern European women. Yellow further increased in prominence during the Great Age of Discovery as well as through the subsequent proliferation of encyclopedias and dictionaries during the Enlightenment. European contact with China further created a wave of Sinophilia and a proliferation of the royal Chinese yellow, which adorned numerous ‘chinoiseries’ or imitation Chinese goods. The 18th century likewise saw the proliferation of newly fashionable (and euphonic) shades of yellow such as pluie de roses (rain of roses), poire du matin (morning pear), and boue de Paris (Paris mud).

However, yellow decreased in popularity in the late 19th century, being associated with moral turpitude, insane asylums (sometimes called ‘yellow houses’), and prostitutes. However, Europeans still found yellow a beautiful color, and some of Paul Cézanne and Vincent Van Gogh’s most exquisite paintings—such as Cézanne’s Straw-Trimmed Vase, Sugar Bowl and Apples—contain strong and deep yellows. As Eugène Delacroix wrote in 1850, “Everyone knows that yellow and orange are beautiful colors, signs of joy and pleasure.”

During the postmodern period of mass production and consumption and the triumph of global capitalism and global culture, the color yellow has taken on multifarious and diverse forms. Pastoureau notes that the color yellow takes prominence in the field of sports with the rise of African, South American, and Caribbean teams on the world stage. The lead cyclist in the Tour de France wears a yellow jersey, and as tennis matches became televised, the tennis ball changed from white to yellow in 1972 to make the ball more visible to television audiences. Soccer’s yellow card was a developed by referees in the 1966 World Cup in order to communicate a penalty to players from different language backgrounds. Pastoureau interesting notes that, in continental Europe, the mailbox and the taxicab were painted yellow in homage to the aristocratic family Thurn und Taxis who had a monopoly on the early modern European postal system.

In the 21st century, perhaps taking up its traditionally transgressive associations, yellow has become the color of populism—many European populist parties are associated with the color yellow, as are the Gilets Jaunes or ‘yellow vests’ protestors. Referring to our tumultuous era, in which so much is in upheaval, Pastoureau ends his work with the haunting question, “Is yellow a color of the future?”

Jesse Russell has written for a number of publications, including Front Porch Republic, Catholic World Report, and Dappled Things.


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