by Michel Pastoureau. Princeton University Press, November 2019. 240 p. ill. ISBN 9780691198255 (h/c), $39.95.
Reviewed May 2020
Mar González Palacios, Associate Director, Special Collections, Robert B. Haas Family Art Library, Yale University Library, email@example.com
Yellow has had a complicated and rich history, one that Michel Pastoureau aims to trace from prehistory to the present in Yellow: The History of a Color.
As we embark in this journey, Pastoureau reminds us that “color is not a fact of nature but a cultural construction; it is society, not nature that ‘makes’ color” (14). Although there is evidence dating back to the Paleolithic period that yellow is one of the first colors that humans produced for painting, it took this color thousands of years to earn a distinctive name to unify a wide range of colorations present in plants, minerals, animals, and even the sun. In fact, in most languages, yellow, as a single inclusive adjective, is one of the last colors to enter their vocabulary.
Cleverly organized by yellow’s level of acceptance throughout history, the book is divided into three chronological chapters that track yellow’s fate from beneficial to ambiguous, and finally, to unpopular. In his quest to understand these changes in popularity not only in terms of its symbolic associations but also in practical terms, Pastoureau addresses issues such as the ability to obtain, process, and stabilize its sources (pigments and dyes) and their applications. Yellow’s use and perceived value are extensively illustrated both in text and image with examples that range from the difficulty of dying cloth in colorfast bright shades to yellow’s complex relationship with gold as material and symbol, from medieval associations of yellow with negative qualities such as envy and deceit, to protestant objections to yellow as loud and even immoral.
Pastoureau, a French historian and academic, has written extensively on the history of color, the history of symbols and heraldry. Yellow is the fifth in a series of books on individual colors which include blue, black, green, and red. Like all of his works, the main focus of Yellow is in European societies with some incursions into other cultures as points of reference.
There may be continued ambivalence or negative attitudes toward yellow, but this book demonstrates what a fascinating color yellow can be. The text is engaging on its own right and it is accompanied with an abundance of attractive images. In addition, the design of book itself celebrates yellow and its ability to be simultaneously striking and light. Nowhere is this more evident than in the chapters’ introductory pages which have easy-to-read black text over full-bleed luscious yellow background. Yellow: The History of a Color is well suited for readers of all levels; it will be valuable addition to art and design collections and can also easily fit into more general collections, both academic and public libraries.