Toward A History of Modern Colour

Cambridge, UK (28.-30.5.2020), 15. September 2019.

University of Cambridge, Pembroke College
28-30 May 2020

From Aristotle to nineteenth-century optical theory, colour has alternately fascinated and perplexed viewers. As Martin Kemp observes, colour ‘presents a bewildering variety of kaleidoscopic variations—fleeting, fluctuating, and almost infinitely slippery whenever we try to entrap them in a regular net of scientific categories’.[1]

Yet colours matter: we select clothes, paint houses, buy cars, and are attracted to the polychromatic density of our televisions, phone screens, and computer monitors. Historically, the ‘red’ scare and ‘black’ shirts evoke key moments in European history, while the colours ‘fuchsia’ and ‘mauve’ evoke hues specific to Western culture. Colours thus function as ‘semiotic devices’. As Umberto Eco observes, ‘Human societies do not only speak of colours, but also with colours’.[2] In short, colours are a central feature of our world and a key component of lived experience. It is surprising, then, that few academic histories have explored the meanings and functions of colour in different periods – particularly the use of specific colours as a distinct social practice.

This conference attempts to do just that, attending to the perceptions, connotations, and constructions of colour in the modern world since 1800 and how these have had a lasting impact on modern societies. Colour only appears when visible light, comprised of various wavelengths, hits the surface of the retina that lines the back of our eyes. Refracted rays are not actually coloured; they only appear so when they collide with an object. The resulting chemical reactions and nerve excitations in the cones or rods of our eyes, specialised photoreceptor cells, produces the appearance of colour. While scientists continue to debate the ‘reality’ of colours — divided into camps of ‘objectivists’ (who believe colour exists independently in the material world) and ‘subjectivists’ (who assert that colours are a product of neurological processes and not a property of the physical world) — historians have been slow to attend to colour and its ontological as well as material qualities.[3] This is surprising given that a third group of contemporary scientists, the so-called ‘relationists’, occupy a category somewhere between the two extremes. They suggest that colour is a cultural, psychological, and physical process that is not simply in-the-world or in-the-mind.[4]

Existing studies of colour tend to be clustered within the field of art history, exploring the use, production, or raw materials of colour in visual culture. Seminal texts include Michel Pastoreau’s series Black, Green, Red, Blue, and Yellow, the works of John Gage, or Jenny Balfour-Paul’s recent history of indigo.[5] While this research has taken the first steps to revealing the economy and material culture of colours like indigo, it nonetheless tends to be framed as wide-ranging narratives of colour’s usage and development from the ancient world through medieval Europe to the present. Although these works have been important for catalysing scholarly attention to colour within the humanities, evinced by David Kastan and Steven Farthing’s On Color (2018), more work is needed to fully understand the social, political, and cultural ‘work’ of colour in specific periods – especially modernity. Richard Dyer and Michael Taussig’s invocations to attend to the symbolic functions of colour in White (2007) and What Color is the Sacred? (2009) posed new cultural and political questions about the use of colour.[6] Building upon this intervention, Leah Knight’s exploration of the meanings and practices associated with the colour green in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century English texts revealed how the political and ecological connotations of green in the early modern world diverge from understandings of green today.[7]

However, historians of modernity have been slower to attend to colour beyond the meanings of ‘black’ and ‘white’ in racial histories of the United States and Latin America.[8] Yet no history connecting nineteenth-century developments in colour technology, symbolism, and politics link these pivotal transformations with the explosion – and signification – of colour in the twentieth century, despite widespread assumptions that the meanings and functions of ‘modern’ colour differ from those of the medieval or early modern world. While colour theory remains a cornerstone of art history and contemporary art criticism, its relationship to media studies, advertising and design, the history of science and of the book, linguistics, and classics continues to expand.[9] To date, however, few studies explore how colour has shaped the modern imaginary.

This conference seeks to expand upon these recent approaches by exploring how colour was deployed, perceived, interpreted, and emotively felt within modern societies since 1800, bringing an interdisciplinary focus to bear on questions of political identity, symbolism, and economics. It accordingly seeks to remedy David Batchelor’s observation that colour has been marginalised in academic study.[10] By inviting scholars from across the UK, Europe, and America working on the material culture, social/religious uses, and political/racial connotations of colour, it hopes to expand the field of colour history by presenting a chronologically-focused discussion of colour’s significance to experiences of modernity, questions of symbolic power, and how it has been defined. Attentive to the global turn, the workshop will frame the history of modern colour within a global context.

The conference builds upon Michel Pastoureau’s assertion that ‘colour is first and foremost a social phenomenon’.[11] It seeks to ask: How did colour animate historical environments? How was colour used as a communicative tool or means of expressing social relationships? How did it relate to the metaphysical and symbolic order of the modern world? How was colour perceived, and how did colour associations like the red flag of revolution or the ‘blackshirts’ and ‘brownshirts’ of European fascism function in social contexts? Taking into account the long process of material and symbolic signification through different shades and appearances of colours, the transnational and diachronic quality of colour symbolism will be a central focus of this conference. 

Speakers will address the question how a comparison of colour symbolism across different societies can tell us something about assumptions and meanings within individual cultures or the global economy of modern colour technologies. Such an interdisciplinary focus will be emphasised throughout the conference, with events at the Fitzwilliam Museum held alongside papers and discussion. Panels will be divided according to three major themes:

•  The material culture and economic history of colour.
•  Colour in a socio-political sphere.
•  Racism, ethnicity, and colour.

Panels will be held across a period of two days from 28-30 May 2020, with sessions structured by 3-4 papers followed by discussion. A keynote lecture open to the public will culminate the workshop given by a distinguished historian of colour. The conference will be hosted at Pembroke College, Cambridge, using the opportunities offered by informal discussion over lunch and dinner to foreground key questions and objectives for future research. An afternoon event at the Fitzwilliam Museum will be organised as an additional excursion to enrich conversation.

Please send a 500-word abstract and a brief bio with a selected list of three publications to the following email:

Deadline for submission of abstracts: 15 September 2019.

[1] Martin Kemp, The Science of Art: Optical Themes in Western Art from Brunelleschi to Seurat (Yale, 1990), p.261.

[2] Umberto Eco, “How Culture Conditions the Colours We See,“ in Marshall Blonsky, ed., On Signs (Baltimore, 1985), 173.

[3] Evan Thompson, Colour Vision: A Study in Cognitive Science and the Philosophy of Perception (Routledge, 1995), p.xi.

[4] Gary Hatfield, ‘Objectivity and subjectivity revisited’ in Rainer Mausfeld and Dieter Heyer (eds.), Colour Perception (Oxford, 2003), pp.187–20; Michael Meulders, Helmholtz: From Enlightenment to Neuroscience, trans. Laurence Garey (MIT, 2010), p.277.

[5] Michel Pastoreau, Black: The History of a Color (Princeton, 2008); Green: The History of a Color (Princeton, 2014); Red: The History of a Color (Princeton, 2017); Blue: The History of a Color (Princeton, 2018); Yellow: The History of a Color (Princeton, 2019); John Gage, Color and Meaning. Art, Science and Symbolism, (Berkeley, 1999); Color and Culture. Practice and Meaning from Antiquity to Abstraction (London, 1995); Jenny Balfour-Paul, Indigo: Egyptian Mummies to Blue Jeans (London: British Museum, 2011) and Deeper Than Indigo: Tracing Thomas Machell, Forgotten Explorer (Medina, 2015); Simon Garfield, Mauve (Faber, 2000).

[6] Richard Dyer, White (Routledge, 1997); Michael Taussig, What Color Is the Sacred? (Chicago, 2009).

[7] Leah Knight, Reading Green in Early Modern England (Farnham: Ashgate, 2014).

[8] Paul Gilroy, Against Race: Imagining Political Culture Beyond the Color Line (Harvard, 2000); David A. Chang, The Color of the Land: Race, Nation, and the Politics of Landownership in Oklahoma, 1832-1929 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2010); Diego A. von Vacano, The Color of Citizenship: Race, Modernity and Latin American / Hispanic Political Thought (Oxford, 2012); Pamela A. Patton (ed.), Envisioning Others; Race, Colour and the Visual in Iberia and Latin America (Leiden: Brill, 2016).

[9] Friedrich Kittler, ‘Thinking colours and/or machines’, Theory, Culture & Society 23.7-8 (2006), pp. 39–50; Carolyn L. Kane, ‘“Programming the beautiful”: Informatic color and aesthetic transformations in early computer art’, Theory, Culture & Society 27.1 (2010), pp.73–93; Scott Higgins, Harnessing the Technicolour Rainbow: Color Design in the 1930s (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2007); Ad Stijnman and Elizabeth Savage (eds.), Printing Colour, 1400-1700: Techniques, Functions, and Receptions (Leiden: Brill, 2015); Wendy Anderson et. al., Colour Studies. A broad spectrum (Amsterdam/Philadelphia, 2014); Christiane Wanzeck, Zur Etymologie lexikalisierter Farbwortverbindungen. Untersuchungen anhand der Farben Rot, Gelb, Grün und Blau (Amsterdam/New York, 2002).

[10] David Batchelor, Chromophobia (London: Reactions, 2000).

[11] Pastoureau, Blue, p.7.

Contact Info:
Dr. Allegra Fryxell, Dr. Hanno Balz
Faculty of History, University of Cambridge
Contact Email: