It is a colour that stands out: the colour of the lead cyclist’s jersey in the Tour de France (a tradition that began in the 1919 race because the race’s sponsor was L’Auto newspaper, printed on yellow paper). But its dubious reputation has endured. Opinion polls since the 1880s agree: yellow is one of the least popular colours (blue is the favourite). Yellow, it seems, is “forever the victim of a symbolic past too heavy to bear”. Like Pastoureau’s earlier volumes, this is a beautifully produced book and an impressive work of scholarship (though one that would be improved by an index). It is a fascinating and sensual celebration of our complex love-hate relationship with what Goethe called this “joyous colour”.
Visually, the book is generally handsome, occasionally gorgeous. Some of the paintings included – by Giotto, Vermeer, Caravaggio, Rembrandt, Cézanne and Gauguin – are fairly well known. Others are more obscure: the cover, for instance, shows František Kupka’s The Yellow Scale, which shows a stern-faced aesthete somewhat reminiscent of George Sanders wearing a yellow robe, leaning on a yellow pillow and holding a yellow book in his right hand – a fine image. Yellow is worth buying as much for its sumptuous images as its scholarship, and it makes for pleasantly soothing reflections in the anxious days wondering whether Operation Yellowhammer will be triggered.
It is not altogether clear quite what Pastoureau’s mix-and-match snippets amount to; indeed, he acknowledges that yellow has been seen as beneficent and maleficent, beautiful and sallow at the same time, which makes any grand overarching theory difficult to impose. But like, for example, a Chinese meal, each information-rich mouthful is tasty and leaves room for just one more. So, he points out that the first association of east Asians with the colour yellow came in a German work of 1795, discussing diversity within a unified human species.