Black: The History of a Color by Michel Pastoureau

BlackBlack: The History of a Color looks remarkably like a coffee table book—large format hardcover; gorgeous color reproductions of paintings, sculptures, engravings; nice layouts—but don’t be fooled. The text is not just for flipping through. Michel Pastoureau, who previously wrote Blue: The History of a Color, explains at the beginning that he is not intending to continue a franchise through all the major colors, partly because the history of each color is too interconnected with all the others:

The furthest thing from my mind, however, is the idea of undertaking a complete series that would attempt, volume by volume, to trace the history of each of the six “basic” colors of Western culture (white, red, black, green, yellow, blue), and then the five “second rank” colors (gray, brown, purple, pink, orange). Such an enterprise, made up of parallel monographs, would have little significance. A color never occurs alone; it only takes on meaning, only fully “functions” from the social, artistic, and symbolic perspectives, insofar as it is associated with or opposed to one or many other colors. By the same token, it is impossible to consider a color in isolation. To speak of black…is also—necessarily—to speak of white, red, brown, purple, and even of blue.

That interconnected history is apparent throughout Black, which, while focusing on black, can’t tell most of its story without reference to red, green, blue, yellow, and especially white and gray.

Pastoureau begins in ancient times with the use of black among Greeks, Romans, and Egyptians. In Pharaonic Egypt black was a color of fertility—like the silt of the Nile—and Germans thought the crow, the blackest of all animals, was “simultaneously divine, warlike, and omniscient” as well as a source of food before Christianity declared it unclean. He traces the social and cultural history of the color through the fall of the Roman Empire, the rise of the Church, the Middle Ages, the Renaissance. Black was at one time used mainly for peasant and work clothes; dyers weren’t yet adept at producing rich, even, or colorfast tones. Rembrandt's Anatomy LessonBut eventually the sumptuary laws that placed restrictions on expensive shades of red and blue pushed bourgeois demand toward black—and the rising middle class had the money to spur improvements to the technology, so soon the professional classes of Europe were clad in dark, even black. Black also always held a certain religious charm. Monastic orders through the ages had used it (among few other colors), and its sense of piety and indication of mourning may have led Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy, to take up wearing black full-time in 1419-20. The fashion spread to the other courts in Europe, eventually bringing black especially into vogue in Spain.

But still, much dress is generally colorful. The Reformation brings a “Protestant chromoclasm”—only black, or perhaps brown or gray, clothing is appropriate to ascetic-minded Calvinists and Puritans. The Catholic reaction is more color. And all the while, as witch hunts increase and the public mind dwells on the sabbat, the superstitions associated with black strengthen and multiply.

And throughout the long period covered by Pastoureau’s history (the ancient near east to the present), technology has a role to play as well. The types of colorants available in the ancient and medieval world, as well as guild rules against dyers working with more than one color, pushed black largely to the background for many years. But as dying techniques improved and guild rules relaxed, black became suitable for the well-to-do and even the nobility.

Rubens EngravingPastoureau’s most interesting discussion is of black’s place in the larger scheme of the color spectrum, which changes over time. At first black was considered truly a color, on a par with red or yellow in the public consciousness. Eventually, though, the position of black—and its new partner white (they weren’t always so closely associated)—changes to something of a noncolor. One reason for this is the rise of printing; black print on white paper created a new black-and-white world, in opposition to the color one around us. People even began to think that color could be represented in black and white.

From the outset engravers endeavored to do this, with more or less success acording to their skill or the ambitions of the iconographic agenda with which they were working. They experimented not only with the quality of the inks and paper, but also and especially with lines, axes, contours, and the use of various hachures to create chromatic effects, notably effects of value and saturation. Black lines that defined figures, for example, could be thin or thick, straight, curved, or broken, continuous or discontinuous, single, double, or triple, drawn out or compressed…. All of this, traditionally within the realm of color, could henceforth be conveyed solely by black on white, and all the more so as over the course of the decades engravers become more and more inventive in expressing by this play of line, stroke, and dot not only what the chromatic syntax of the image would be if it wer colored, but also actual pictorial effects.

And while printing was separating black and white out of the realm of “color,” advances in the study of optics were doing the same. Black and white had always been a part of the spectrum, but with Isaac Newton’s new analysis of the rainbow and the nature of white light that would change.

The story continues through the present day, the fortunes of black—and the other colors—changing with political, economic, cultural, and artistic developments. Pastoureau has made this a fascinating history of aesthetics, culture, society, and religion, illustrated with dozens of examples of paintings, miniatures, and other documents. Information is drawn from coats of arms, paintings and other works of art, treatises on art and science, and records of household possessions. There are a few stylistic or translation issues (hard to tell which, but the phrase “par excellence” certainly appears more often than normal), but none of the historical detail is dry or inaccessible. An extremely attractive book with fascinating stories to tell about how Western civilization has interacted with the spectrum for the past two thousand years.