Angus Trumble
Master of the Rolls

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The associations of this fascinating colour, which before the 1960s suffered from curiously widespread 20th-century unpopularity, are decidedly mixed. The English word ‘yellow’ apparently comes from ‘gall,’ the yellow liquid once thought to be secreted by the liver. Yellow fever is an infectious disease of the tropics so named because of the dreadful jaundice it causes, along with black vomit and tremors.

Jaundice — the English name comes from the French jaune (yellow) — was once believed to cause the sufferer actually to see yellow, a belief that in due course gave rise to the expression ‘a jaundiced eye,’ that is an eye which sees only faults. According to Sir James Frazer, ancient Hindus performed an elaborate ceremony invoking homeopathic magic to cure people of jaundice, banishing the yellow colour from the sufferer’s body and sending it back to creatures like thrushes, parrots or the yellow wagtail, or to yellow things like the sun. The quarantine flags that fly from vessels as a warning against infectious diseases are always yellow.

In September 1895, Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany coined the racist term ‘Yellow peril!’ (die gelbe Gefahr!) to describe the people of Japan, following their swift, decisive, and, he thought, portentous military victory over China. He was so pleased with the idea that he conceived a graphic illustration which he had drawn, engraved and distributed to foreign embassies and governments, much to the dismay of professional German diplomats.

This bizarre image, the product of a deeply philistine imagination, showed a menacing, airborne Buddha riding a dragon across Asia towards Europe, carving a path of destruction and trailing thunder clouds. Female figures represent the courageous but overshadowed powers of Europe, led by bold Germania who, wearing an eagle helmet, strides out, her sword drawn in readiness. This absurd pictorial fantasy was eventually reproduced in Harper’s Weekly (22 January 1898) and, incredibly, the term ‘yellow peril’ began to gain widespread currency in Europe and America, something that deeply excited the Kaiser.

Up to the Great Depression, individual agreements entered between employers and their employees were known as ‘yellow’ or ‘yellow-dog’ contracts because they were intended to prevent working people from joining labour unions. A law of 1898 prohibited the disruptive use of such contracts on the railroads, but was struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1908, who thought it an unconstitutional infringement upon the freedom of entering a contract.

Yellow-dog contracts were widely imitated in other countries, and in Belgium between the Wars employers attempted to destroy the power of labour unions by setting up their own employees’ associations which soon became known as ‘yellow unions.’ At the nadir of the Great Depression, by the so-called Norris—La Guardia Act of 1932, yellow-dog contracts were finally made unenforceable in U.S. federal courts. The practice has since then returned to the modern workplace, though cleansed of its sinister name. The usage presumably stems from the association between the colour yellow and cowardice.

Judas Iscariot was traditionally represented wearing yellow. In Giotto’s famous fresco The Kiss of Judas (Padua: Arena Chapel), Jesus is almost entirely enveloped by his treacherous disciple’s vividly yellow cloak. In France, the doors of traitors were daubed with yellow. Elsewhere, bankrupts were also forced to wear yellow hats. In some countries anti-semitic laws forced Jews to wear yellow clothes, a vestigial mark of their alleged betrayal of Jesus. Disc-shaped badges of yellow were made compulsory and, in Rome, yellow hats as well.

The Nazis revived the practice, as is well known, forcing Jews to wear a yellow Magen David inscribed with the letter J or the whole word Jude (or equivalent). Victims of the Spanish Inquisition were burned at the stake wearing yellow, to indicate heresy and treason. The connection between sulphur, the colour yellow and hell fire was well established in the early church. Moreover, the confusion between yellow and green, long thought to be ‘two species of the same genus of hue,’ extends back to Democritus (Athens, fifth century B.C.), and for centuries, particularly in the Middle Ages, suggested further grim associations with green men, the Green Knight, and other primitive manifestations of those dark forces that resided in the forest and the wilderness, beyond the reach of human society. The monster of envy was green-eyed, but for centuries to be jealous was ‘to wear yellow hose.’

Lately one of the oxides of uranium produced from basic ore became known in about 1950 as ‘yellowcake,’ the object of much protest from opponents of uranium mining and nuclear energy from the 1960s onward.

For all these frightful connotations, yellow has another, parallel history as the colour of gold, of the sun, of daffodils, butter, bananas, wheat and egg yolks, as the colour of the jersey worn by the victor of the previous day’s leg in the Tour de France, as a key to understanding various optical phenomena and, latterly, from about 1600, when modern colour theorists arrived at a consensus, as one of the three primaries. Greek medicine associated yellow with the ‘four humours,’ blood (red), phlegm (white), yellow bile and black bile, which substances, held in perfect balance, constituted a healthy man.

Hippocrates and his followers referred to the same hues as the ‘diagnostic colours’ of the tongue. Yellow enjoyed a senior place in the hierarchy of medieval heraldic colours, though it was not thought to be as noble as white because it was not as close to the colour of light — a surprisingly acute observation, later confirmed by the fifteenth-century Humanist Lorenzo Valla, who argued that silvery white, not yellow, was the real colour of the sun. Another fifteenth-century scholar, a gloss writer called Bernardino de’ Busti, thought that yellow was expressive of the balance between the red of justice and the white of compassion.

In ancient China, yellow enjoyed an esteemed place in the hierarchy of colours, far superior to green. Huangdi (Huang-ti), the legendary Yellow Emperor of remote antiquity (c. early 3rd millennium B.C.), a paragon of wisdom and virtue, was considered the common ancestor of the Chinese people. A second-century A.D. commentary upon a poem in the Book of Odes (Shijing), refers to the robe of a neglected wife as green, but with a yellow lining. Green carried the connotation of shame, notoriety, ill-repute, while the yellow told of the wife’s concealed integrity, a truth which her husband’s ill-treatment could hide but not erase.

Meanwhile in ancient Indian aesthetics, and elsewhere in Southeast and East Asia, yellow was invariably associated with the richness and sumptuousness of gold. Each rasa of Indian aesthetics, that is each flavour, sentiment or delight, corresponded with a particular colour. Vira, the heroic, was yellow. Chinese connoisseurs occasionally struck a note of caution, however, since they were perfectly aware that yellow gold was not as pure as the softest, heaviest, most refined gold, which was reddish. Moreover, that yellow could be forged. The recipe, according to one handbook, the Ko Ku Yao Lun, required salt-petre, salt and copperas (ferrous sulfate, FeSO4) rinsed in goose fat and applied to a copper base by firing in a kiln.

In the second half of the Nineteenth century yellow was enormously fashionable, saturating the distinctive paper covers of books published in France by Hachette and others, and in due course providing the title of a famous publishing venture of the 1890s for which the young draughtsman Aubrey Beardsley produced some of his best work: The Yellow Book (1894—97). The Pre-Raphaelites used a lot of yellow, as did their follower Edward Burne-Jones. James McNeill Whistler’s famous ‘yellow breakfasts,’ in which goldfish, buttercups and bowls of nasturtiums were prominent ornaments, became smart and were widely imitated.

Undergraduates were infatuated by what Oscar Wilde called the ‘leonine beauty of the sunflower’ and, incongruously perhaps, numerous men of Harvard brought large single stems to a lecture Wilde delivered in Cambridge. (They must have been artificial because it was winter.) In his Prose Fancies, Richard Le Gallienne celebrated the nineties boom in yellow: ‘Let us dream of this: A maid with yellow hair, clad in a yellow gown, seated in a yellow room, at the window a yellow sunset, in the grate a yellow fire, at her side a yellow lamplight, on her knee a Yellow Book.’

What would later become known as ‘paperback’ books were in the 1870s and 1880s called ‘yellow-backs.’ There is no evidence to suggest that commercial telephone directories, arranged by subject, printed on tinted paper and commonly known all over the world by the title of the original American directory, Yellow Pages, grew out of advertisements printed on the covers of yellow-backs. The colour and title are probably more closely related to the modern use of yellow as the colour of maximum visibility, for traffic and other warning signs, for protective clothing, helmets and temporary barriers.

That usage appears to follow nature. Studies of insectivorous birds have demonstrated that among 5,000 insects belonging to 200 species the least palatable were coloured yellow, orange or red. As for yellow and black, this distinctive combination appears and reappears in nature as a protective, ‘false’ warning of all sorts of unrelated animals, including salamanders (Salamandra maculosa), tree snakes (Dipsadomorphus dendrophilus), sea snakes (Pelamydrus platurus), sawflies (Athalia cordata), wasps (Vespa vulgaris), bees (Nomada alternata), caterpillars (Hipocrita jacobææ and Zygæna filipendulæ), some varieties of butterfly (e.g. Abraxas grossulariata and Acræa horta), some varieties of beetle (e.g. Clytus arietis and Chilomenes lunata), some varieties of fly (e.g. Syrphus ribesii and Volucella bombylans), moths (Trochilium crabroniformis) and weevils (Alcides ruptus).

The inherent ambiguity of yellow in nature — frequently the caustic-looking armature of an otherwise defenceless creature — was not lost on the Romantic poets. While they were likely to qualify the adjective yellow with complementary words such as golden, flaxen, sunny, tawny, amber, tortoise, ardent and fallow (a rather weird coupling in Walter Scott, though Wordsworth beat him to sallow!), they were just as likely to deploy the more exciting lurid (Coleridge), sulphurous (Byron), brimstone (Shelley) and volcaneous (Keats). Today this ambiguity is given perfect expression on the streets of our cities since the transition between the green and red traffic signals is mediated by yellow, which sits in between.

Lately, modern minds have cast about for other meanings of yellow. The German doctor Wilhelm Wundt, for example, saw the psychological transition from yellow to blue as expressive of the transition from liveliness to rest. The German artist Franz Marc thought the same colours corresponded to the two genders. Blue, he argued, was male; yellow female.

The evolution of pigments both natural and synthetic that produced the range and boldness of modern yellows is equally remarkable, and may be traced in the work of painters as distinguished as J. M. W. Turner, Paul Gauguin, Vincent van Gogh, Henri Matisse and Wassily Kandinsky, who, like his friend and Blaue Reiter associate Marc, was so interested in the psychic effects of colour. In his Concerning the Spiritual in Art (1911), Kandinsky inquired whether the visual sharpness he observed in yellow was due to some primitive, subconscious association with the bitter taste of lemons.

On the whole Kandinsky thought yellow better suited the severe, pointed form of a triangle than to softer shapes like ovals and circles, with which the more contemplative colour of blue made better sense. Yellow tended to disturb the senses due to its capacity for aggression, its insistence, its shrillness. Corresponding sensations might be sought in perfume or sound; Kandinsky regarded as perfectly plausible the sound of yellow music, or a sour yellow fragrance. Yet he felt that, depending on the intensity and hue, yellow could also stimulate sensations of warmth and movement, recalling a remark attributed to Eugène Delacroix: ‘Everyone knows that yellow, orange, and red suggest ideas of joy and plenty.’

During the nineteenth century there was a tremendous expansion in the number and variety of yellow pigments developed for commercial manufacture. Previously that section of the artist’s palette was confined mainly to yellow ochre, an earth pigment derived from hydrated iron oxide, and orpiment, also known as King’s yellow or arsenic sulfide (As2S3), which was known to occur naturally as early as the fifteenth-century B.C., when they were used in paintings at Tel el-Amarna in Egypt. The universal, ancient link between yellow and ochres is most eloquently expressed in the name of the Yellow River (Huang He or Huang Ho), the second longest river in China (after the Yangtze) and the muddiest in the world, discharging vast quantities of silt into what is therefore known as the Yellow Sea.

There were also natural yellow dyes, mostly extracted from plants and other organic sources of which piuri or Indian yellow, has the most intriguing provenance, being a paste made from the urine of cows fed on the leaves of the mango tree. This unlikely commodity made its way to Europe in the form of dried patties. Other yellow dyes have at various times been extracted from unripe buckthorn berries, the leaves and stems of Reseda luteola L., saffron, fustic, dyer’s broom (Genista tinctoria), and the bark of the American oak tree. (This last pigment is known as quercitron.) Gamboge, meanwhile, is a yellow gum resin extracted from varieties of the Garcinia tree which are to be found throughout the Indian subcontinent and southeast Asia.

A number of European yellows were derived from lead compounds, including lead-tin oxide (Pb2SnO4), lead monoxide (PbO), lead antimony-oxide (Naples yellow), and lead oxychloride. These pigments must have contributed to the premature death of generations of painters, due to their extreme toxicity. Lead-tin yellow has the most interesting history. It is thought to correspond with the colour called giallorino or giallolino, for which Cennino Cennini gave a recipe in his Libro dell’arte as early as c. 1390. The same pigment was called masticot north of the Alps, and was used widely between that date and the end of the seventeenth century when, for some mysterious reason the recipe was lost. From that date it suddenly ceases to be detectable in eighteenth, nineteenth and early twentieth-century paint films. A chemist at the Doerner Institute in Munich rediscovered the recipe in 1940 and, in due course, lead-tin yellow was brought back into commercial production. A number of modern fakes have been exposed thanks to this remarkable rediscovery. Lead-tin oxide has no business finding its way into an eighteenth-century picture, and since such an object was evidently for stylistic, historical or iconographical reasons not made in the seventeenth century, it must therefore have been made after 1940.

In the nineteenth century, brighter, more powerful yellows went into production: Chrome yellow (lead chromate, PbCrO4), Cadmium yellow (cadmium sulfide, CdS) and Cobalt yellow (potassium cobaltnitrate), all of which may be found in the work of famous painters, especially in the Post-Impressionist and Modernist circles. Naples yellow, meanwhile, the lead-antimony yellow that has been commercially manufactured for longer than almost any other synthetic pigment, enjoyed a revival of popularity towards the end of the nineteenth century. Renoir used it a lot. So did Matisse.

ICOLS Department of Global Nostalgia remains committed to the colour yellow.