Of all the colors artists have had at their command throughout the ages, none has endured more reversals of fortune than black. Indeed, in his book Black: The History of a Color, published by Princeton University Press, historian Michel Pastoureau points out that for a few centuries after Isaac Newton’s discovery of the spectrum, around 1665, “black and white were considered and experienced as ‘noncolors.’”
Beginning with the earliest known cave paintings, Pastoureau charts the color’s passage through the realms of art, fashion, and society, noting that in ancient times black was associated with caverns and underground spaces, fearful places that nevertheless had their own sacred energy. In Egypt, black assured the safe passage of the deceased to the beyond and thus was the preferred color for divinities linked to death. By the early Middle Ages, in Europe, black had been “demonized,” assigned to harbingers of bad fortune and symbols of evil like the devil. Outcasts were clothed in black, and black cats and crows first acquired their reputation as ill omens. And, of course, there was the Black Death.
Meanwhile, black’s rehabilitation as a color worthy of esteem had begun in the Romanesque period, when it was the choice for robes in certain monastic orders and it had equal status in coats of arms with the five other colors that would form the basis of Western art for centuries to come: red, blue, yellow, green, and white. The black knight, later the bad guy in books and movies, was at first a prominent hero—Tristan, Lancelot, and Gawain—“who wanted to keep his identity secret while concealing himself in this color,” Pastoureau writes.
But black really came into its own with the Reformation, whose leaders and artists led a full-fledged revolt against the pomp and display of the Catholic Church. Martin Luther is generally depicted in the most sober of blacks, while the era’s painters began to favor tenebrous colors in even their most dramatic compositions. Rembrandt, notes the author, “often practices a kind of color asceticism, relying on dark tones, restrained and limited in number . . . to give precedence to the powerful effects of light.”
Closer to our own century, black was a popular choice for Romantic and Pre-Raphaelite painters and a potent means of expression for modernists like Piet Mondrian and Pierre Soulages. (Curiously, Pastoureau does not mention Americans such as Franz Kline or Louise Nevelson, who used black so forcefully.) Today, black has become something of a cliché, too often deployed by fashion designers and goth teenagers. And for the first time in history, according to Pastoureau, polls place black “in the middle of the gamut” of the six major hues. Not as popular as blue, nor as disliked as yellow, it is simply a “color like all the others.”