The Secret of the Secret of Color


Color has a secret.

In one form or another, this has been the message of the recent boom in color studies. Sometimes the secret is psychological. Seeing blue involves not only light waves and retinas, but also an act of interpretation based on lighting conditions and on what, in the past, we’ve made of similar stimuli. That’s why some people saw blue and black in that famous dress, while others saw white and gold.

Sometimes the secret is social. That red shirt you’re wearing? It’s not just red but “spiced apple” or “rapture rose” or some other specific hue picked out and promoted by a color forecasting group, an actual group of actual people who meet up in convention centers to set color trends. Manufacturers have their “color experts,” who decide which hues will be used for the season’s products. That’s why, as Regina Lee Blaszczyk notes in her history of these color professionals, the same shade of lime green or mustard yellow will suddenly seem to be everywhere, from clothing to throw pillows to the menus at the new bakery. The workings of these color cabals are revealed every couple of years in the popular press.

Sometimes the secret is historical. Did you know that “ultramarine” is derived from the Latin for “beyond the sea,” and that the name designated the long passage that lapis lazuli had to take from the mines of Afghanistan to Europe? Or that ultramarine pigment was, for centuries, costlier than gold, which is why artists in the fifteenth-century began using them for the Virgin Mary’s robes? Kassia St Clair’s The Secret Lives of Colour brims with such secrets, stretching from ancient times to modernity. Her entry on Baker-Miller pink, for instance, tells of the brief moment in the 1980s when this Pepto-Bismol-like hue came to be used in prisons, buses, and housing estates because of its supposed ability to subdue the violent impulses of young men. Other books by Michel Pastoureau, Victoria Finlay, David Kastan, and Gavin Evans, to name just a few, reveal similar “hidden messages” about color.

There’s always a secret. The pleasure of reading these books and articles about color is in seeing how something that seems natural and self-evident is in fact the result of complex historical and biological processes. Color, that paradigm of immediacy, turns out to be riddled with mediations.

When I began writing about color and American literature as a graduate student, I too wanted to tell secrets. I found that my period of interest—those essential years between 1880 and 1930 when American modernity took its distinctive form—witnessed crucial developments in how color was made and understood. The mass production of new synthetic dyes changed the look and feel of commercial colors, bringing a vibrant and expansive palette to the goods of everyday life. The emerging science of psychology took color as one of its early subjects, redefining it in the process. Studies of color perception and its relation to environmental stimuli and the state of the observer (whether distracted, focused, listening to sounds, thinking about language, and so on), put forth a detailed view both of how color experience is produced and of how specific colors affect us. Advertisers and social reformers quickly sought to put these theories to work.

By telling the cultural and literary history of color, I wanted to tell a broader story about how the modern sensory scene came about, including an account of the habits of feeling and seeing such a scene demanded. (That’s one area in which literature proves helpful: in dramatizing historical ways of responding to color).

But the more I researched, the more I realized that I was not simply finding further color secrets but witnessing the more fundamental construction of color as something with a secret. In the novels, poetry, decoration manuals, children’s books, philosophical essays, psychological studies, pedagogical journals, and business magazines that I read, and that I discuss in my book Chromographia, I saw how color came to be understood in two separate yet related ways. First, as a distinct domain of nature with its own laws and principles, such that an artist or designer could learn how to manipulate color effects. Second, as an intense and emotionally-charged experience, something that hits the body directly, bypassing conscious thought. I became more and more interested in how these two faces of color fit together, and in how they were often held apart. Because it’s in this duplicity that color came to be something at once immediate and mediated, wholly manifest and yet full of hidden depths.

When L. Frank Baum published The Wonderful Wizard of Oz in 1900, he worked with illustrator W. W. Denslow to make his book “glow” with bright color. In fact, the whole narrative universe of the original Oz story—with its color-coded regions and hyper-green Emerald City—is designed to show off the colors of the actual book. As a children’s author, Baum exploited the immediacy of color.

The gates of the Emerald City. Baum, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, illustrations by Denslow, 109. Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

Yet as an advertiser and window-dresser (before Oz he edited a professional journal called The Show Window), Baum leaned on the “laws” of color, which he held to be hidden from average observers and so perfect for stimulating consumer desire. He gave readers tips on how to manipulate the “set laws” of color and advised that even items “desirable in themselves” still “need[ed] a color effect to throw them out properly”—otherwise consumers might not even realize they wanted it.[1]

The doubleness of color held in other areas as well. Empirical studies of color perception in the period tended to emphasize one of two things: either the direct, bodily reaction to chromatic stimuli (such that certain colors caused certain moods–see Baker-Miller pink), or the complex calculations that the brain makes in order to see a particular color. In this latter case, what we see when we see red is not so much a thing as a set of relations, which our minds mediate into a single sensation, imbued with qualitative immediacy. This, in fact, is what Gertrude Stein discovered when she apprenticed as a color researcher in the Harvard psychology lab in the 1890s. And it’s the basic insight about color that she carried into her famously saturated book of poetry, Tender Buttons (1914).

Two Milton Bradley Color Wheels (bottom right and left), along with several color disks of various sizes. There are also apparatuses for testing the perception of afterimages, luminous color, color blindness, and “appreciation of color.” “Instruments for Experiments on Sight,” from Hugo Munsterberg, Psychological Laboratory of Harvard University, 8.

The more I saw this dual nature of color in the wider cultural conversation about color effects—and I should note that at the turn of the twentieth century this conversation was livelier than it had ever been—the more I realized that the blend of immediacy and mediation opened a new space for exploring the language of color, and in particular its literary uses. An obligatory move in recent books on color is to point out that language can never do justice to the visual world. This is usually done with an apologetic tone. The idea is that language is an abstract system of mediations, while visual color is a concrete presentation of brute sensation. But if we take seriously the challenge of color’s duality, the way it results from the transformation of mediations into immediacy, and if we are willing to shed the ingrained philosophical habit of thinking of the abstract and the concrete as two incompatible realms (rather than as two phases in an ongoing process), then the language of color is no longer an embarrassment to vision. Rather, our verbal invocations of color—from the names we give it to the ways we narrate its effects—stand as extensions and transformations of color itself.

In Chromographia, I’ve tried to show just how inventive and consequential the literary transformations of chromatic experience were in the early decades of American modernity. There are lots of color “secrets” in the book, many of which give a historical background for the current crop of color books. But perhaps the most important story it tells is that of the secret of color’s secrets.


Nicholas Gaskill is associate professor of American literature at the University of Oxford and tutorial fellow at Oriel College. He is coeditor of The Lure of Whitehead (Minnesota, 2014).

“What happened when chemists invented mauve? When The Wonderful Wizard of Oz taught us childhood meant colorfulness? When Stephen Crane painted courage red? In Nicholas Gaskill’s brilliant, beautiful, and mind-expanding book, we learn the myriad ways in which being modern in America meant no less than an encounter with color itself. And that meant thinking anew about mind and body, language and world, the challenges of the avant-garde and the pleasures of popular culture. Chromographia is that rare and iridescent thing: a philosophically searching contribution to literary–cultural history.”—Jennifer Fleissner, Indiana University, Bloomington

“Between the 1880s and the 1930s the world changed color. Nicholas Gaskill’s multilayered study of the period shows how a number of factors—an emerging relational understanding of chromatic experience, the commercial production of synthetic dyes, and theories of vision derived from evolutionary biology—together gave color a new visibility and brilliance and transformed it into a vitally important subject for literary and artistic modernism. If the cultural study of color—let’s call it Chromotology—was a recognized discipline, then this would be one of its principal texts.”—David Batchelor, author of Chromophobia

Chromographia is a study of color perception just as brilliant as all the saturated hues that the new chromatic technologies and synthetic dyes of the nineteenth century brought out like never before. Nicholas Gaskill explores the meaning of this modern, multicolored world from the perspective of the writers, philosophers, psychologists, and educators who, in trying to cultivate a feeling for color, believe that language has the power to augment our sensory encounter with the world and to make life more vivid. This is a dazzling book that puts us in immediate relation with the vibrancy of these decades as we learn about the dynamic forms that color takes, its importance to aesthetic experience, and its intensifying, clarifying role in modern thought.”—Elisa Tamarkin, University of California, Berkeley

[1] L. Frank Baum, The Art of Decorating Dry Goods Windows and Interiors: A Complete Manual of Window Trimming, Designed as an Educator in All the Details of the Art, According to the Best Accepted Methods, and Treating Fully Every Important Subject (Chicago: Show Window Publishing, 1900), 24, 35.
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