Black - The History of a Color

5 Takeaways from Pastoureau’s Book

February 19, 2023

book cover

I recently read Pastoureau’s interesting European cultural history of the color black. It’s a beautiful book tracking 1,000 years of culture, science, and technology related to the ubiquitous color black. Here are my five takeaways.

1. Describing Color

The vocabulary for color has been “unstable, imprecise, and elusive.” At times, there has been a greater emphasis on texture, density, brilliance/luminosity, or tonality.

Black is simultaneously modern, creative, and powerful.

2. Black has several different meanings.

Historically, black symbolized our fertile origins — important examples include the black soil of the silt deposits of Egypt’s Nile River and storm clouds before a needed rain. But black has also connoted danger, such as night or historical imagery of the devil. Yet, it’s also frequently used to convey safety with formal, holy, and traditional dress. Consider priest and judges robes, referees, tuxedos, and business suits. But black can also express the opposite — a rejection of formality and the status quo. The French revolutionaries, anarchists, and punks frequently donned black.

3. Values That Frame our Understanding

At times, color has been understood to symbolize excess, connected to moral failings such as temptation, pride, and gluttony. Black, in contrast, was austere and holy.

For others, color is understood as light, a representation of God and God’s beauty. These proponents believe color should be celebrated and used to ward off black, the evil of darkness.

4. Our Culture Impacts Our Understanding of Color

The very words we use to describe colors have varied over the years. For hundreds of years, there were two words for black, one conveying a shiny black and one for a more dull one. Dark blue and purple were described as black. Even how people describe which colors contrast with each other has changed over time. White and black have consistently been seen as a major contrast. But at times, black and red were more important contrasts. At other times gray was the main contrast to black.

Can we really see Michelangelo’s colors with our modern lighting?

5. Technology Shapes Our Perceptions

Technology has shifted the way we see the world. Our lighting literally changes the brightness and perception of the objects around us.

The discovery of new dyes led to the possibility of new colors in clothing and art. And with technological innovations, there would be new fads to commodify these advances. In the 1700’s, American indigo was used to make a new, lighter blue. As this new blue became pervasive in Europe, the connotation of blue was transformed and helped to differentiate it from black.

With the invention of the printing press and engraving, the world’s knowledge was compressed into black text on white pages. Images, regardless of their original color, were translated to black ink.

For more on the cultural history of meaning, see my notes on Errol Morris’s Believing is Seeing.