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  • Writer's pictureAccessible Art History

History of Color: Orange

Welcome back to the Accessible Art History Blog! For today’s post, I’m wrapping up the History of Color series with orange! It has been so fascinating to explore this foundational element of art. This color is so much more than just the fruit! So to learn more, keep on reading!


Orange is a mix of two primary colors: red and yellow. Fascinatingly, the color was named for the fruit! We can trace the English origin all the way back to ancient Sanskrit. From there, we see the development of the Persian and Arabic versions of the word. When those areas began to trade with Europe through Italy, we see the Latinized words spread to Italian and

French dialects, finally arriving in English speaking areas. In fact, the first recorded use of the word “orange” dates from 1502. It was used to describe some of the fabric put aside for Princess Margaret Tudor on the occasion of her marriage to King James IV of Scotland.

As I’m sure you know, orange is one of the most prevalent colors in nature. From ripe fruits and vegetables, to changing fall leaves, and beautiful flowers, orange can be found anywhere and during any season!

Oranges prevalence in nature means that we see it used frequently in art. In Ancient Egypt, a mineral

called realgar was crushed up and used as pigment. This was dangerous as the mineral contained arsenic. In Ancient India and China, carnelian (a semi-precious stone) was used. This was somewhat safer. In western Europe, from the days of the Roman Empire through the medieval period, another arsenic based material was used: orpiment. Essentially, orange could be deadly!

It wasn’t until 1797 that French scientist Louis Vauquelin discovered the mineral crocoite. It could be synthesized into a safe pigment that produced an orange hue. This led to the development of other synthetic pigments: cobalt red, cobalt yellow, and cobalt orange. Artists now had a safe option for dozens of different shades for their works.

With the rise of synthetic pigments, we see a sharp rise in the use of orange in art. The Pre-Raphaelite School, Impressionists and Post-Impressionists are all known for their use of the color. This is especially seen in works that utilize changing light.


Symbolism 1: Abundance and Fertility

Now that we’ve established the history of orange, let’s take a look at some of its use in symbolism! Firstly, we have abundance and fertility. Because many fruits and vegetables ripen to a rich orange color, the goddess of the harvest, Pomona, is often shown wearing an orange dress or cloak. In addition, we see a lot of orange food around the American holiday of Thanksgiving, a traditional feast of the harvest.


Symbolism 2: Religion

Interestingly, orange is a symbol for multiple religions! Firstly, is Protestant Christianity. This religion flourished in the Netherlands, which was ruled by the House of Orange. They sided with the Protestants during the Wars of Religion, associating the color with the Protestant cause.

In addition, orange is a sacred color in both Hinduism and Buddhism. In Hinduism, orange is worn by the god Krishna, the eighth avatar of Vishnu and also as the supreme God in his own right. For Buddhists, orange is the color of enlightenment. It is because of this that monks wear orange robes.


Symbolism 3: Attention Getting and Safety

Finally, orange is one the colors that grabs our attention the easiest. Although it isn’t as aggressive as red, it gets the job done! Construction signs, safety signs, and life vests are all orange so that people can easily see it and take the necessary precautions. In fact, the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco was painted orange so that ships would be able to see it in the frequent fog!


Orange is fascinating because of how it is found in so many facets of our lives! I hope you enjoyed our journey through the history of color!




Blog Header:

  1. Midsummer, by Albert Joseph Moore - Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

  2. Willow trees at sunset by Vincent Van Gogh - Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

  3. Egyptian Lyre Player - Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

  • Margaret Tudor, dated c. 1620-1638, by Daniel Mytens - Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

  • Meules, from the 1890–1891 series of Haystacks by Claude Monet - Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

  • Pomona, by Nicolas Fouché, c. 1700 - Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

Religion Image

  1. William the Silent of Orange - Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

  2. Krishna Statue at the Sri Mariamman Temple (Singapore). - CC 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

  3. A Theravada Buddhist monk in Laos - CC 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

  • Golden Gate Bridge - CC 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons

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