Welcome back to the Accessible Art History blog! This week, I’m continuing my series on the history of color. Over on Instagram (@accessible.art.history), I ran a poll and we decided to go with primary colors before diving into secondary colors. So, I’m continuing with yellow. This color has a familiar similar history to red, but has a complicated symbolic meaning. So to learn more, then keep on reading!
Yellow is one of the oldest colors in human history. This is because, up until the 1920’s, it was made from yellow ochre. Ochre is clay mixed with some form of iron oxide (in this case hydrated iron hydroxide), giving it a yellowish hue. In fact, art historians have found evidence of yellow in the Lascaux cave paintings from 17,000 years ago!
Because of its abundance, yellow is found throughout the world’s civilizations. Indigenous Australia, Ancient Egypt, Imperial China, and more all use yellow to create works of art. Because of its wide range, yellow has come to symbolize many different things. For example, in Western Europe, Judas Iscariot is often shown wearing yellow because it symbolizes cowardice. (This is where we get the term “yellow belly”).
However, when the yellow is more of a golden shade, it can be used as a symbol of royalty or spirituality. (Crowns and halos). In addition, in Imperial China, it was a symbol of power and only the emperor was allowed to wear it. Finally, we often see yellow being used in ancient religious works because it was associated with the sun and its life giving abilities via food production. In today’s society, especially in Western culture, yellow is seen as slightly aggressive and attention seeking. This is why things such as taxis and yield signs are often painted in a bright, yellow tone.
Yellow is a fascinating color because of its long history and varied interpretations. Next time, I’ll be discussing blue and its history!
Sunflowers by Vincent Van Gogh, 1888. (Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons)
The Kiss of Judas by Giotto di Bondone, 1304–06. (Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons)
The Qianlong Emperor in court dress, 18th century. (Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons)