Books & arts
Colour in art
Paint it black
The colour black has long been the ultimate test of an artist’s ingenuity
Claude Monet died in darkest December in 1926 surrounded by the garden he had created at Giverny. When Georges Clemenceau, the former French prime minister, arrived three days later for the artist’s funeral and caught sight of the blackdraped coffin, he exclaimed: “No! No black for Monet.” An old piece of cretonne was brought down from the house to replace the dark pall with the palette that the artist had made his own: nature’s many greens, lavender, water lilies and forget-me-nots.
Most colours represent different things for different people. The hue of death in India and in some Slavic cultures is white, yet white also means spiritual rebirth for Muslims participating in the haj. Green was for bankers in early modern Europe; in the Kenyan flag it represents the land. Red is the badge of loyalty and success in China and of power and devotion in Russia. In Nathaniel Hawthorne’s New England it was the sign of adultery. Black, however, has associations that are universal. It is bound up with witchcraft, the underworld, nighttime and the far side of the Moon.
Physicists say it is not really a colour at all. Because black is the result of the absence of light, Sir Isaac Newton did not see it on the spectrum of colours in his experiments with prisms in the late 1660s. Many artists take a different view. For them black represents an intellectual and technical challenge; it is the high-jump of colour, a test of their skill, ingenuity and imagination. (Black skin has its own, entwined but distinct, artistic history, with vexed connotations of power, prejudice and eroticism.)