From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
"One must respect black. Nothing prostitutes it. It does not please the eye and it awakens no sensuality. It is the agent of the mind far more than the most beautiful color to the palette or prism." --A soi-même (1922) by Odilon Redon
--"Can You Feel It" (1986) by Mr. Fingers
Black is the color of coal, ebony, and of outer space. It is the darkest color, the result of the absence of or complete absorption of light. It is the opposite of white and often represents darkness in contrast with light.
Black was one of the first colors used by artists in neolithic cave paintings. In the Roman Empire, it became the color of mourning, and over the centuries it was frequently associated with death, evil, witches and magic. In the 14th century, it began to be worn by royalty, the clergy, judges and government officials in much of Europe. It became the color worn by English romantic poets, businessmen and statesmen in the 19th century, and a high fashion color in the 20th century.
In the Western World today, it is the color most commonly associated with mourning, the end, secrets, magic, violence. Other connotations include power, death, elegance, evil, darkness, mystery, Nubians, Halloween, coal, petroleum, sin, outer space, anarchism, profit, night, bad luck, crime and sophistication.
Black in history and art
The Ancient World
Black was one of the first colors used in art. The Lascaux Cave in France contains drawings of bulls and other animals drawn by paleolithic artists between 18,000 and 17,000 years ago. They began by using charcoal, and then made more vivid black pigments by burning bones or grinding a powder of manganese oxide.
For the ancient Egyptians, black had very positive associations. it was the color of the rich black soil flooded by the Nile. It was the color of Anubis, the god of the underworld, who took the form of a black jackal, and offered protection against evil to the dead.
For the ancient Greeks, black was also the color of the underworld, separated from the world of the living by the river Acheron, whose water was black. Those who had committed the worst sins were sent to Tartarus, the deepest and darkest level. In the center was the palace of Hades, the king of the underworld, where he was seated upon a black ebony throne.
Black was one of the most important colors used by ancient Greek artists. In the 6th century BC, they began making black-figure pottery and later red figure pottery, using a highly original technique. In black-figure pottery, the artist would paint figures with a glossy clay slip on a red clay pot. When the pot was fired, the figures painted with the slip would turn black, against a red background. Later they reversed the process, painting the spaces between the figures with slip. This created magnificent red figures against a glossy black background.
In the social hierarchy of ancient Rome, purple was the color reserved for the Emperor; red was the color worn by soldiers (red cloaks for the officers, red tunics for the soldiers); white the color worn by the priests, and black was worn by craftsmen and artisans. The black they wore was not deep and rich; the vegetable dyes used to make black were not solid or lasting, so the blacks often turned out faded gray or brown.
In Latin, the word for black, ater and to darken, atere, were associated with cruelty, brutality and evil. They were the root of the English words "atrocious" and "atrocity".
Black was also the Roman color of death and mourning. In the 2nd century BC Roman magistrates began to wear a dark toga, called a toga pulla, to funeral ceremonies. Later, under the Empire, the family of the deceased also wore dark colors for a long period; then, after a banquet to mark the end of mourning, exchanged the black for a white toga. In Roman poetry, death was called the hora nigra, the black hour.
The German and Scandinavian peoples worshipped their own goddess of the night, Nótt, who crossed the sky in a chariot drawn by a black horse. They also feared Hel, the goddess of the kingdom of the dead, whose skin was black on one side and red on the other. They also held sacred the crow. They believed that Odin, the king of the Nordic pantheon, had two black crows, Huginn and Muninn, who served as his agents, traveling the world for him, watching and listening.
The Middle Ages
In the early Middle Ages, black was commonly associated with darkness and evil. In Medieval paintings, the devil was usually depicted as having human form, but with wings and black skin or hair.
In fashion, black did not have the prestige of red, the color of the nobility. It was worn by Benedictine monks as a sign of humility and penitence. In the 12th century a famous theological dispute broke out between the Cistercian monks, who wore white, and the Benedictines, who wore black. A Benedictine abbot, Pierre the Venerable, accused the Cistercians of excessive pride in wearing white instead of black. Saint Bernard of Clairvaux, the founder of the Cistercians responded that black was the color of the devil, hell, "of death and sin," while white represented "purity, innocence and all the virtues".
Black symbolized both power and secrecy in the medieval world. The emblem of the Holy Roman Empire of Germany was a black eagle. The black knight in the poetry of the Middle Ages was an enigmatic figure, hiding his identity, usually wrapped in secrecy.
Obtaining a good quality black was an essential element of the most influential invention of the Middle Ages; the printing press. Traditional handwriting ink, invented in China and India in ancient times, blurred during printing. A new kind of ink, printer's ink, was created in the 15th century out of soot, turpentine and walnut oil. The new ink made it possible to spread ideas to a mass audience through printed books, and to popularize art through black and white engravings and prints.
Black becomes the color of fashion
In the early Middle Ages, princes, nobles and the wealthy usually wore bright colors, particularly scarlet cloaks from Italy. Black was rarely part of the wardrobe of a noble family. The one exception was the fur of the sable. This glossy black fur, from an animal of the marten family, was the finest and most expensive fur in Europe. It was imported from Russia and Poland and used to trim the robes and gowns of royalty.
In the 14th century, the status of black began to change. First, high-quality black dyes began to arrive on the market, allowing garments of a deep, rich black. Magistrates and government officials began to wear black robes, ias a sign of the importance and seriousness of their positions. A third reason was the passage of sumptuary laws in some parts of Europe which prohibited the wearing of costly clothes and certain colors by anyone except members of the nobility. The famous bright scarlet cloaks from Venice and the peacock blue fabrics from Florence were restricted to the nobility. The wealthy bankers and merchants of northern Italy responded by changing to black robes and gowns, made with the most expensive fabrics.
The change to the more austere but elegant black was quickly picked up by the kings and nobility. It began in northern Italy, where the Duke of Milan and the Count of Savoy and the rulers of Mantua, Ferrara, Rimini and Urbino began to dress in black. It then spread to France, led by Louis I, Duke of Orleans, younger brother of King Charles VI of France. It moved to England at the end of the reign of King Richard II (1377-1399), where all the court began to wear black. In 1419-20, black became the color of the powerful Duke of Burgundy, Philip the Good. It moved to Spain, where it became the color of The Spanish Hapsburgs, of Charles V and of his son, Philip II of Spain (1527-1598). European rulers saw it as the color of power, dignity, humility and temperance. By the end of the 16th century, it was the color worn by almost all the monarchs of Europe and their courts.
Protestants and Puritans
While black was the color worn by the Catholic rules of Europe, it was also the emblematic color of the Protestant Reformation in Europe and the Puritans in England and America. Jean Calvin, Melanchton and other Protestant theologians denounced the richly colored and decorated interiors of Roman Catholic churches. They saw the color red, worn by the Pope and his Cardinals, as the color of luxury, sin, and human folly. In some northern European cities, mobs attacked churches and cathedrals, smashed the stained glass windows and defaced the statues and decoration. In Protestant doctrine, clothing was required to be sober, simple and discreet. Bright colors were banished and replaced by blacks, browns and grays; women and children were recommended to wear white.
In the Protestant Netherlands, Rembrandt Van Rijn used this sober new palette of blacks and browns to create portraits whose faces emerged from the shadows expressing the deepest human emotions. The Catholic painters of the Counter-Reformation, like Rubens, went in the opposite direction; they filled their paintings with bright and rich colors. The new Baroque churches of the Counter-Reformation were usually shining white inside and filled with statues, frescoes, marble, gold and colorful paintings, to appeal to the public. But European Catholics of all classes, like Protestants, eventually adopted a sober wardrobe that was mostly black, brown and gray.
Witches and black cats
In the second part of the 17th century, Europe and America experienced an epidemic of fear of witchcraft. People widely believed that the devil appeared at midnight in a ceremony called a black mass or black sabbath, usually in the form of a black animal, often a goat, a dog, a wolf, a bear, a deer or a rooster, accompanied by their familiar spirits, black cats, serpents and other black creatures. This was the origin of the widespread superstition about black cats and other black animals. In Medieval Flanders, in a ceremony called Kattenstoet. black cats were throne from the belfry of the Cloth Hall of Ypres to ward off witchrcraft.
Witch trials were common in both Europe and America during this period. During the notorious Salem witch trials in New England in 1692-93, one of those on trial was accused of being able turn into a "black thing with a blue cap," and others of having familiars in the form of a black dog, a black cat and a black bird. Nineteen women and men were hanged as witches.
The 18th and 19th centuries
In the 18th century, during the European Age of Enlightenment, black receded as a fashion color. Paris became the fashion capital, and pastels, blues, greens, yellow and white became the colors of the nobility and upper classes. But after the French Revolution, black again became the dominant color.
Black was the color of the industrial revolution, largely fueled by coal, and later by oil. Thanks to coal smoke, the buildings of the large cities of Europe and America gradually turned black. Charles Dickens and other writers described the dark streets and smoky skies of London, and they were vividly illustrated in the engravings of French artist Gustave Doré.
A different kind of black was an important part of the romantic movement in literature. Black was the color of melancholy, the dominant theme of romanticism. The novels of the period were filled with castles, ruins, dungeons, storms, and meetings at midnight. The leading poets of the movement were usually portrayed dressed in black, usually with a white shirt and open collar, and a scarf carelessly over their shoulder, Percy Bysshe Shelley and Lord Byron helped create the enduring stereotpype of the romantic poet.
The invention of new, inexpensive synthetic black dyes and the industrialization of the textile industry meant that good-quality black clothes were available for the first time to the general population. In the 19th century gradually black became the most popular color of business dress of the upper and middle classes in England, the Continent, and America.
Black dominated literature and fashion in the 19th century, and played a large role in painting. James McNeil Whistler made the color the subject of his most famous painting, Arrangement in grey and black number one (1871), better known as Whistler's Mother.
Some 19th-century French painters had a low opinion of black: "Reject black," Paul Gaugin said, "and that mix of black and white they call gray. Nothing is black, nothing is gray." But Edouard Manet used blacks for their strength and dramatic effect. Manet's portrait of painter Berthe Morisot was a study in black which perfectly captured her spirit of independence. The black gave the painting power and immediacy; he even changed her eyes, which were green, to black to strengthen the effect. Henri Matisse quoted the French impressionist Pissarro telling him, "Manet is stronger than us all - he made light with black."
Auguste Renoir used luminous blacks, especially in his portraits. When someone told him that black was not a color, Renoir replied: "What makes you think that? Black is the queen of colors. I always detested Prussian blue. I tried to replace black with a mixure of red and blue, I tried using cobalt blue or ultramarine, but I always came back to ivory black."
Vincent Van Gogh used black lines to outline many of the objects in his paintings, such as the bed in the famous painting of his bedroom. making them stand apart. His painting of black crows over a cornfield, painted shortly before he died, was particularly agitated and haunting.
In the late 19th century, black also became the color of anarchism.
20th and 21st centuries
In the 20th century, black was the color of Italian and German fascism.
In art, black regained some of the territory that it had lost during the 19th century. The Russian painter Kasimir Malevich, a member of the Suprematist movement, created the Black Square in 1915, is widely considered the first purely abstract painting. He wrote, "The painted work is no longer simply the imitation of reality, but is this very reality....It is not a demonstration of ability, but the materialization of an idea."
Black was also appreciated by Henri Matisse. "When I didn't know what color to put down, I put down black," he said in 1945. "Black is a force: I used black as ballast to simplify the construction....Since the impressionists it seems to have made continuous progress, taking a more and more important part in color orchestration, comparable to that of the double bass as a solo instrument."
In the 1950s, black came to be a symbol of individuality and intellectual and social rebellion, the color of those who didn't accept established norms and values. In Paris, it was worn by Left-Bank intellectuals and performers such as Juliette Greco, and by some members of the Beat Movement in New York and San Francisco. Black leather jackets were worn by motorcycle gangs such as the Hells Angels and street gangs on the fringes of society in the United States. Black as a color of rebellion was celebrated in such films as The Wild One, with Marlon Brando. By the end of the 20th century, black was the emblematic color of the punk subculture punk fashion, and the goth subculture. Goth fashion, which emerged in England in the 1980s, was inspired by Victorian era mourning dress.
In men's fashion, black gradually ceded its dominance to navy blue, particularly in business suits. Black evening dress and formal dress in general were worn less and less. In 1960, John F. Kennedy was the last American President to be inaugurated wearing formal dress; President Lyndon Johnson and all his successors were inaugurated wearing business suits.
Women's fashion was revolutionized and simplified in 1926 by the French designer Coco Chanel, who published a drawing of a simple black dress in Vogue magazine. She famously said, "A woman needs just three things; a black dress, a black sweater, and, on her arm, a man she loves.". Other designers contributed to the trend of the little black dress. The Italian designer Gianni Versace said, "Black is the quintessence of simplicity and elegance," and French designer Yves Saint Laurent said, "black is the liaison which connects art and fashion. One of the most famous black dresses of the century was designed by Hubert de Givenchy and was worn by Audrey Hepburn in the 1961 film Breakfast at Tiffany's.
The American Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s was a struggle for the political equality of African Americans. It developed into the Black Power movement in the late 1960s and 1970s, and popularized the slogan "Black is Beautiful".
In the 1990s, the Black Standard became the banner of many of the groups within the Islamist jihad movement.
- African American
- Black music
- Black comedy
- Black people
- Black art
- Anthology of Black Humor
- The Black Dahlia (novel)
- Black Mountain poets
- Black science fiction
- Jack Black
- Black and white
- Black Ivory
- Karen Black
- Black magic
- Black market
- Black death