“What a horrible thing yellow is,” muttered Edgar Degas. Granted, he loved painting ballerinas, and one sees few yellow tutus. But Degas is on to something more, because yellow has a weird place in the pantheon. It is the color of sunshine and daffodils, and it stands for warmth, joy, and clarity—yet has some of the vilest associations known to any hue.
Yellow traffic lights urge caution; yellow bellies nickname cowardice. Ships fly the Yellow Jack flag under quarantine. Perhaps because of the yellow tinge of jaundice, yellow is often used to suggest physical or mental illness.
The dualism is ancient, but weirdly, as Sabine Doran points out in The Culture of Yellow, fresh symbolism bloomed in the 1890s.
In 1892, Charlotte Perkins Gilman wrote her claustrophobic, outraged story “The Yellow Wallpaper,” letting us feel a woman’s post-partum depression and enforced idleness. Her husband discourages her from writing. Left with nothing to do but stare at the yellow wallpaper, she descends into psychosis.
In 1895, “Yellow journalism” began, born of the rivalry between Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst. As competition ratcheted up, Hearst encouraged hyperbole and fanned the flames of controversy. Many believe that sensational journalism drove the U.S. to enter the Spanish-American War.
In 1897, the xenophobic phrase “Yellow Peril” was coined by a Russian sociologist warning of mass immigration from Asia, and it soon infiltrated the foreign policy of many nations.
The entire decade was later dubbed the Yellow Nineties, the name inspired by The Yellow Book, a British literary quarterly published in the middle of the decade. Aubrey Beardsley, its first art editor, gave it a yellow cover in homage to illicit, racy French paperbacks, which were given a yellow cover as a caution.
Oscar Wilde thoroughly approved of this new movement, which urged sharp breaks with stuffy old mores and staid art. He had one of his characters present Dorian Gray with one of those yellow-jacketed French novels—an attempt to cheer him up that only sped his corruption. The femme fatale in An Ideal Husband admits her preference for books “in a yellow color.” And if we trust the rumors, Wilde was carrying The Yellow Book when he was arrested for indecency. He brought it with him to trial, securing its reputation as a symbol of aesthetic decadence.
Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, meanwhile, dressed the cabaret singers and can-can dancers he painted in yellow. Did he know the color signified prostitution? In the Middle Ages in Vienna and Venice, sex workers were required to wear yellow scarves; in Pisa, a yellow headband; in Leipzig, a yellow cloak. Yellow signified their marginalized status to the rest of society, as did the earlier insistence that Jews must be “marked in the eyes of the public from other peoples through the character of their dress.” That finding came from the Fourth Lateran Council, presided over by Pope Innocent III in 1215. The clerics did not impose a yellow badge, but their pronouncement made it possible for civic authorities to do so.
What, beyond a sun that is now too hot and daffodils whose stay is briefer every year, is left to redeem the color yellow? Despite its dubious associations, yellow is cheerful, making it the perfect color for the now ubiquitous smiley face, created (in ten minutes) to boost morale at an insurance company. Yellow can also suggest spiritual enlightenment, a noble striving for virtue. When Frank Baum wrote The Wizard of Oz, he had become a Theosophist, and he believed firmly in a literal afterlife reached by following virtue’s path. The Yellow Brick Road was a friendlier, democratized version of the golden path that theosophists followed, a path of virtue they were sure would lead to heaven.
I read this and smile, thinking of the oddly assorted friends skipping down that road…and then a melody enters my head, and it is Elton John bidding goodbye to a “yellow brick road” of toxic choices. Is there no hope for the color of fuzzy chicks, Irish butter, sunny kitchens, so much that is wonderful?
In his Theory of Colors, Goethe gave a possible explanation for the dualism. Yellow is the color nearest to the light, he noted, and “in its highest purity it always carries with it the nature of brightness, and has a serene, gay, softly exciting character.” Kept pure, yellow is the happiest of colors. But it is “extremely liable to contamination, and produces a very disagreeable effect if it is sullied.”
I think of yellow with a bit of brown in it (a shade that a graphic designer I worked with called “babyshit yellow”), or yellow with a tinge of green, sulfuric and suggestive of Satan. Goethe got the science of light wrong—both Schopenhauer and Wittgenstein wrote harsh critiques—but he may have gotten the psychology of yellow right. “There is nothing outside of us that is not also in us,” he remarked. Which makes me wonder what color might characterize this decade.
Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.