The Rich History of Color, and Why It’s So Hard to Choose a Favorite

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Editor's Note:

Kassia St. Clair is a freelance journalist and author based in London. She has written about design and culture for publications including The EconomistHouse & GardenQuartz, and the New Statesman. She has had a column about color in Elle Decoration since 2013. Her book, The Secret Lives of Color, details the unforgettable, unknown history of colors. Here, she shares a few of her favorite colors and the stories behind them.

When I get asked what my favorite color is – and this has happened a lot over the past few months – giving a consistent answer isn’t easy.

Ultramarine always rises to the top of my mind most readily. It’s an artists’ pigment made from lapis lazuli, a glittering semi-precious stone, most of which traditionally came from a single mine in north-eastern Afghanistan. (The word ‘ultramarine’ itself evokes this exoticism: it is descended from Latin and means ‘beyond the sea’.) Because it had to be traded over so many miles in order to reach Western artists, it was difficult – sometimes even impossible – to come by, time-consuming and technically challenging to make, and eye-wateringly expensive. Nevertheless, many Medieval and Renaissance artists lost their hearts and earnings to it. To see why you only need to look at a painting in which it has been used to its full effect – ‘The Virgin at Prayer’ by Giovanni Sassoferrato (1650) is a favorite example. Ultramarine is the deep blue of the sky at twilight (or owl-light, as they bewitchingly call it in the north of England). It is bright and colorfast and so saturated that it seems to pull you into it, a mesmerising optical illusion.

But there are many other colors that I love for different reasons. Mummy brown, for example, may not be the most attractive to look at, but its story is the one that always has people leaning forward, eyes widening. (A magical reaction when you enjoy telling color tales.) This pigment is, as the name suggests, made of mummified human remains, usually excavated from ancient Egyptian tombs. There was, once upon a time, quite a trade in mummies. People bought them as curiosities, or for the trinkets that were sometimes secreted among their bandages and, for a very long time, it was believed that their flesh, ground to a powder, was a powerful medicine. Pliny, a Roman writer who lived in the first century AD, recommended it as a toothpaste. Francois I of France carried a bag containing a mixture of powdered rhubarb and mummy with him everywhere as a cure-all and Shakespeare’s son-in-law claimed to have used it to cure a case of epilepsy. Because it was found in apothecary shops, which sold both pigments and medicine, it was soon adopted by artists too. In fact, it was only abandoned in the twentieth century, when supplies of mummies ran out. One art manufacturer complained to Time magazine in 1964 that while they “might have a few odd limbs lying around”, they could no longer source enough mummy to make this color.

Mauve – a tint completely out of fashion for the moment – was discovered completely by mistake in 1856 by an eighteen-year-old scientist who was actually trying to find a cure for malaria. It was the first aniline dye — a family of colorants still widely used, and which birthed a new branch of chemistry to which we owe everything from artificial musk to hair dye. Mauve now is often depicted as quite grey and anaemic, but this original mauve was very bright. Queen Victoria wore a gown in this color to the wedding of her daughter; soon after it had become so fashionable and ubiquitous that one newspaper complained that London had caught a rare and deadly new disease: the “Mauve Measles”.

Around the same time – the mid nineteenth century – a whole family of new colors were being discovered that went on to radically change the access ordinary people had to bright, fully saturated colors in their homes and on their persons. Dyes like mauve and its progeny – magenta, violet, aniline reds and green – and new pigments such as synthetic ultramarine and Scheele’s green were suddenly available for prices that many more people could afford. A cultural explosion of color. All this enthusiasm, however, meant that grave oversights were made. Scheele’s green became incredibly popular in home décor as a paint or in wallpaper. Charles Dickens was so enamoured with this shade that he vowed in 1845 to use it throughout his entire home from basement to garret. His wife – apparently not a fan – quashed the idea. This was exceedingly lucky for Dickens: Scheele’s green contained arsenic, which, if it got damp, was released into the air. For many years it was believed that Napoleon’s green sprigged wallpaper on the drizzly island of St Helena may have had something to do with the former French leader’s death. Recent tests show that actually Napoleon’s arsenic levels were very high throughout his life, but this deadly color may be responsible for some the symptoms he suffered in his final days.

Colors, it seems, don’t have to be beautiful to change the course of history.