A flash of “Ferrari yellow” greets museum visitors at Walker Art Center’s Vineland entrance. A burst of “Jeffersonian yellow” dashes over six lanes of highway, covering half of artist Siah Armajani’s Irene Hixon Whitney Bridge. At the Kolman & Pryor Gallery, the color is the subject of its latest exhibition, “The Color Series: Part 3, Yellow.”
It’s winter and we all need a little color. Yellow is here to remind us there’s still warmth in the world.
“Yellow is most commonly thought of as a vibrant, uplifting color,” said Kolman & Pryor co-founder Anita Sue Kolman. “It’s also easily found in natural pigments and has been incorporated into art since prehistoric humans created cave paintings.”
Yellow is the topic of a new book by historian Michel Pastoureau. From cave paintings to France’s “yellow vest” movement, “Yellow: The History of a Color” (Princeton University Press) takes readers on a Eurocentric tour of the color.
Pastoureau, who is director of studies at the Sorbonne in Paris and a leading authority on the history of colors, has also penned books on blue, black, green and red. He believes “it is society, not nature, that ‘makes’ color” — meaning that color is a social construction, created by humans. It’s a social construction we see as soon as we open our eyes in the morning.
In the beginning, yellow was a beneficial color. Found on the walls of early cave people and referenced during the Neolithic period and the age of metals, yellow was also symbolic of the gold found everywhere in ancient Egyptian tombs.
There was a pleasure to yellow. Apollo, Olympian god of sun, light, music and poetry, was known for his blond hair. When the Romans cultivated monochrome, yellow was typically worn by women.
The early days of yellow were different from the Middle Ages, when “abstract colors” and symbolism became things. White was for Easter and the holiest high holidays; yellow remained hidden from view. In medieval illuminations, yellow is separated from gold. Twelfth-century apostles began dressing in yellow, and it was also found on coats of arms.
But there was a more deceitful side to yellow, as well. Sir Lancelot, the great knight of King Arthur’s court, also wore yellow; he was accused of treason for his affair with Guinevere. In the seven deadly sins, yellow symbolizes envy. Toward the end of the Middle Ages, yellow became recognized as the color of Jewish people, a way to point them out and exclude them; the yellow star imposed by the Nazis on Jewish citizens can be traced back to this.
Not all treated yellow the same, though. King Henry VIII of England felt yellow was a sign of joy and victory; he wore it during his six marriages. Yellow was also exclusive; in imperial China, it was the emperor’s color, and only the imperial family could wear it. By the second half of the 19th century, yellow became known as the color of deceivers and the deceived, thanks to its use in the theater, public notices and political cartoons. In Europe from the 14th to the 20th centuries, prostitution was represented by yellow and red.
There’s an element of caution in yellow. A yellow traffic light indicates drivers should prepare to stop. A yellow card in soccer suggests players should be more careful, lest they get ejected from the game. In football, the yellow flag is a penalty.
But yellow also commands attention. Taxis are often yellow, making them easier to spot and hail down. (They’re much brighter than the black Uber or pink Lyft apps on tiny phone screens.) Yellow could be the future, Pastoureau ponders, but that means it would have to surpass blue as the favorite color of Europeans.
That’s a big ask for such a controversial color. But, like a flash of sunlight, the lyrics of the cheesy Coldplay song “Yellow” pop into mind. So, what of Jeffersonian and Ferrari yellow when you have “the stars, look how they shine for you. ... And it was called yellow.”