Colors and Their Meaning.

The Continental Monthly 2, elokuu 1864

In order to a due understanding of the signification of colors, it is necessary we should  commence at the foundation. Accordingly I shall begin by saying that colors are primary, secondary, and tertiary.

Primary colors are three: red, yellow, and blue.

Red is the color of greatest heat.

Yellow is the color of greatest light.

Blue is the color of chemical change.

In accordance with this philosophical truth, we should naturally expect to find a preponderance of blue rays from the sun in the spring time, and so it is.

These rays preponderate at the time of ploughing, sowing, and germination.

In the summer time, after the plant has started from the ground, and requires vigorous leaves to bring it to perfection ere the cold winter rolls around once more, we have the yellow rays. 'Light, more light,' is then the cry of nature, and as not even length of days affords this element in sufficient completeness, the sun darts his brightest beams in 'the leafy month of June.'

Later still in the year, after germination is past and growth perfected, comes the necessity of heat rays to ripen fruit, vegetables, and grain, and nature's behests are obeyed in the then preponderance of the red rays. Much of this effect may be due to the media through which the sun's rays pass. A sensitized photographic paper is not colored as much at an altitude of three miles in half an hour as is a similar paper upon the earth's surface in one moment. At any season of the year, gardeners can either stimulate or retard germination as they place a blue or yellow glass over the nursling. That the growth of plants is not due alone to the rays of the sun we can, without experiment, convince ourselves, as even ordinary observers are well aware that upon some days plants shoot up so rapidly as to grow almost visibly under their eyes, and in other conditions of the atmosphere seemingly remain dormant for days.

The germinating influence, let it be due either to peculiar rays alone, or to atmospheric state, does not contain much coloring matter. The first spring flowers are of a pale color; as summer advances we have brighter hues, but not until the approach of fall do we see Flora in all her gorgeousness of coloring. The paleness of mountain and arctic flowers, and the brilliancy of those of the tropics, point to the same cause which gives the temperate zones their brightest flowers when heat rays preponderate.

As depth of color seems connected with the red or heat rays; so perfume belongs rightfully to the summer blossoms; when light is the strongest, then we have our pinks, and roses, and lilies.

There are also in the spectrum four secondary colors: orange, green, indigo, and violet. The secondary colors are alternate with the primary in the spectrum, and are formed by a mixture of the two primary nearest them—as orange, formed by a union of red and yellow; green, by a mixture of yellow and blue; indigo and violet, of blue and red. Thus:


Tertiary colors are many more than both primary and secondary. They are hues not found in the spectrum. They are nature's stepchildren rather than children, and many of them might not inappropriately be called children of art; yet although most of them are of inventions that man has sought out, they are at best but shades, and must all look back to the spectrum as their common parent.

Each of the primary colors forms a simple contrast to the other two; thus blue is contrasted by yellow and by red, either of which forms a simple contrast to it; but as it is a law of color that compound contrasts are more effective than simple in the proportion of two to one, it follows that a mixture of either two of the primitive colors is the most powerful contrast possible with the other.

Red and yellow form orange, the greatest and the most harmonious contrast to blue; red and blue form violet or purple, so much admired in contrast with yellow in the pansy; yellow and blue form green, the contrast to red, and the color needed to restore the tone of the optic nerve when strained or fatigued by undue attention to red. This is the most common and admirable contrast in the vegetable kingdom; the brilliant red blossom or fruit, with green leaves, as instance the fiery tulip, the crimson rose, the scarlet verbena, the burning dahlia, the cherry and apple trees, the tomato or loveapple of my childhood, and the scarlet maple and sumach of our American October.

There are two distinct harmonies of color: the harmony of contrast, and the harmony of shading. The former is the harmony of striking diversities found in nature, and the other a mellowing of colors, or blending of similar hues, attributable to art.

From this little synopsis of the effects and uses of the prismatic colors, we shall be enabled the better to understand both the ancient and modern popular ideas as to colors as representatives and correspondences. Colors have a mental, moral, and physical significance—a good and a bad import. The one to which I shall first direct your attention is that which most readily strikes the eye.


Which Thoreau called the 'color of colors,' in the Hebrew signified to have dominion, and in early art was symbolical or emblematic of Divine love, creative power, etc. The word Adam, we have been taught, signifies red man; it does mean 'the blood,' which, of course, originated 'to be red,' as a secondary signification. Lanci, the great interpreter of Sacred Philology at the Vatican, deems 'The Blusher,' to be the true meaning of the word Adam. God created man, male and female created He them, and called their name Adam. A blush, so becoming on the countenance of feminine beauty, is generally deemed a sign of weakness when visible upon a man's face. But if the above interpretation be correct, a blush is a man's birthright, which no sense of false shame should prevent him from modestly claiming. Red, as signifying perfection, dominion, fruition, was appropriately the name of our first parents, whether we regard the account of the creation to be literally understood, as the old theologians believe, or spiritually and typically, as the modern ones insist.

Red is the color of what is intense, be it love or hatred, kindness or cruelty. It denotes the fulness of strong emotions; alike the glowing of conscious love or the blazing of fierce anger, the fiery ardor of daring and valor, or the fierce cruelty of hatred and revenge. Of our own star-spangled banner, we sing:

'The red is the blood of the brave.'
The red garments of cardinals, and especially their red hats, are supposed to betoken their readiness to spill their blood for Jesus Christ.

Red is the color of undeveloped ideas. It is the hue which most quickly attracts the attention of children and savages. All barbarous nations admire red; many savages paint their faces vermilion before entering battle, to which they look forward as the means of attaining enviable position in their tribe; for with barbarians physical prowess is the only superiority.

Some animals are excited to madness by the sight of this color. The bull and the turkey take it as a signal of defiance, which they rush to meet. 'Come, if you dare,' they read it, and impetuously hasten to the onset.

When the bloody Jeffreys was in his bloodiest humor, he wore into court a red cap, which was the sure death warrant of those about to be tried.

The death garment of Charlotte Corday was a red chemise—fit emblem of the ungovernable instincts, the wild rioting in blood of that reign of terror.

Christ was crucified in a scarlet robe, and in that color of love and perfection, perfected his offering of love for mankind.


Anciently symbolized the sun, the goodness of God, marriage, faith, and fruitfulness. Old paintings of St. Peter represent him in a yellow mantle. The Venuses were clothed in saffron-colored tunics; Roman brides of an early day wore a veil of an orange tinge, called the flameum, a flame—a flame which, kindled at Hymen's torch, it is to be hoped was ever burning, never consuming. As every good has its antipodal evil, so every color has its bad sense, which is contrary or opposite to its first or good signification.

In a bad sense, yellow means inconstancy, and the æsthetic Greeks, fully carrying out this meaning, compelled their public courtesans to distinguish themselves by mantles of saffron color. The radical sense of saffron is to fail, to be hollow, to be exhausted. In tracing customs, it is easy to see the bias unknowingly received from natural significations, significations which take their rise in the spiritual world. The San Benito or auto-da-fe dress of the Spanish Inquisition was yellow, blazoned with a flaming cross; and, as a mark of contempt for the race, the Jews of Catholic Spain were condemned to wear a yellow cap. Distinguishing colors in dress have ever been one of the most common methods of expressing distinction of class and differences of faith, until thence has arisen the imperative adage: 'Show your colors;' and he who refuses to do so is despised as a hypocrite or changeling.

Yellow, as a color, finds but few admirers among modern enlightened nations; it is recognized as the color of shams; but in China, that country of contrarities, where printing, fish breeding, gas burning, and artesian wells have been known and stationary for centuries, where almond-shaped eyes, club feet, and long cues are types of beauty, where old men laughingly fly kites, and little boys look gravely on, where white is mourning, and everything is different from elsewhere—there yellow is the most admired of colors, restricted to the use of royalty alone under penalty of death.

Yellow is the most searching of colors, as indeed it should be from its correspondence with light. It is gaudy, and does not inspire respect, for it brings into view every imperfection. Every defect in form or manner is rendered conspicuous by it, and we involuntarily scan the whole person of the unfortunate and tasteless wearer of it.

In early art, represented truth, honor, and fidelity, and even at this day we associate blue and truthfulness. Christ and the Virgin were formerly painted with blue mantles, and blue is especially recognized as the Virgin's color. We can never turn our eyes upward without seeing truth's emblematical color. How appropriate that the heavens should be blue! Of truthfulness and faithfulness it should be our constant reminder.

Primary blue enters as a compound into three other colors of the spectrum: green, indigo, and violet. As a primary color, it is much more rarely seen in nature than either red or yellow. We have few blue birds, few blue flowers, few blue fruits. As one of a compound, it is oftener found than red. The grass, the leaves, everywhere proclaim the marriage of good, as yellow anciently represented, and truth, as blue symbolized. There is a deep significance in the change that has come over mankind's view of the meaning of the first of these colors. With the loss of faith, the tearing apart of truth and goodness, has come a change of correspondence. Men have everywhere turned away from the light, though still professing to strive for truth.

Each color possesses a character of its own, which proclaims to the close observer the peculiar qualities of that to which it belongs. The horticulturist reads the peculiarities of the fruit as readily by its color as the phrenologist reads his by his 'bumps.' The red one, he will tell you, is sour, the white one sweet, the pale one flat, and the green one alkaline; that one is a good table apple, this one a superior cider apple; and if you further ask the characteristics of a good cider apple, he will tell you again it is known by its color, not only of the skin, but also of the pulp, and that it can be foretold whether cider will be weak, thin, and colorless, or possess strength, or richness, or color.

The botanist, too, regards color as indicative of quality, the yellow flower having a bitter taste and a fixed, unfading hue, the black, a poisonous, destructive property, etc., etc.

Truth, of which we have seen blue was the correspondent, is never superficial, and, although apparent truths lie upon the surface, yet a common adage locates truth at the bottom of a well. Seamen acknowledge deep indigo blue of water to be indicative of profound depth. Of the three or primitive colors, the red or heat color, which has been termed light felt, the yellow or light color, which has been called heat seen, and the blue, a color of chemical change, which is the color of growth, these correspond in an unknown degree to the love, wisdom, and truth of the Supreme One; heat to love, for love is heat; light to wisdom, for wisdom is light; and germination and growth to truth, for by truth souls grow into wisdom and love. The more we explore the arcana of nature the more we will be enabled to discover the correspondence of the natural with the spiritual world.


Is the emblem of light, every white ray of light containing all the prismatic colors; and as it symbolizes innocence and purity, it is the color must appropriate for clothing infants, brides, and the dead. We think of the angels as clothed in white. At the transfiguration of our Lord and Master, his raiment became shining, exceeding white as snow, as no fuller on earth can white them; and in one of the Evangelists his raiment is described as at that time as white as the light, and so our highest comparison of whiteness is 'as white as the light.'

Formed by a combination in equal proportions of the three primitive colors in equal intensity, is the color of despair. As mourning, it is only suitable for those who despair of the future of their friends; but it is preëminently unsuitable to be worn for those who die in Christian faith with a Christian hope. Despite its gloomy hue, it has almost become a sacred color among Christian nations, being worn as the dress of the priest in his ministerial office, and doubly hallowed from its association with the dead.

Black, as an ornamental color, should be below all others, for artistic effect. An artistic dressmaker places the dark or black plaids or stripes beneath the others. This natural correspondence is almost universally recognized among enlightened nations in clothing for the feet. They not only look smaller and more tasteful in black shoes than in colored, but economy also sanctions them as more useful. The universal tendency of the nineteenth century is to utilitarianism; the one question asked is: What is the use? and in use is beauty ever found.

Ethnological investigation shows that black or dark-colored races have invariably preceded settlement by the whites. This is in accordance with the law of color above laid down, viz., that, artistically, black is below the other colors (and now, in order that I may not be misunderstood, I explicitly say that because, artistically, black is the lowest color, it by no means follows that I deem black or olive or yellow races subjects for slavery, or unworthy of social and political rights). In accordance with the above axiom, savage and half-civilized races are found to be at the present day black haired and black eyed. I will also venture the assertion that nine tenths of all the people in the world have black hair.

The Hindoo legend of the eighth incarnation of Vishnu under the name of Crishna, makes him then of a bluish-black color, which the name Crishna signifies. His supposititious father, Wanda, said:

'When I named him Crishna, on account of his color, the priest told me he must be the god who had taken different bodies, red, white, yellow, and black, in his various incarnations, and now he had assumed a black color again, since in black all colors are absorbed.'

Although among Caucasian nations, and especially in cosmopolitan America, we do not adduce intellectual superiority from the shades or degrees of whiteness, yet it is said of the Moors that the more the color approaches the black, the handsomer and of more decisive character are the men.

It is a physiological fact brought to light partially through the census, that black-eyed races and black-eyed people are more subject to blindness than others. It has also been shown that black-eyed men are not as good marksmen as blue-eyed or light-eyed men.

Not only are different races of men subject to different diseases, but statistics prove that among Caucasian nations, complexion and disease are in some way connected, as for instance, consumption is more rife among dark-haired and dark-eyed people than others, and more rapid with those dark-haired and dark-eyed people who have very fair complexion. As the difference between golden and black hair lies in that there is in the one case an excess of sulphur and oxygen with a deficiency of carbon, and in the other an excess of carbon and a deficiency of sulphur and oxygen, it can easily be seen why such deficiency or excess, if arising from idiosyncrasy of the system, should predispose to dissimilar diseases. But here a wide field yet lies open for experimental and physiological research.

There is scarcely a color but has been or is held sacred by some nation or religion. With Mahommedans green is the sacred hue. The prophet originally wore a turban of that dye, and the sultan shows due preference for that color.

The tomb of David, which is in possession of the Mahommedans, and which was at great hazard visited by a lady within the past few years, is covered by a green satin tapestry, and over it hangs a satin canopy of red, blue, yellow, and green stripes, the three primitive and the sacred, compound color.

Green also seems to have been the sacred color in ancient Peru, virgins of the sun wearing robes of that hue. The ancient Mexican priests also, in the performance of their functions, wore crowns of green and yellow feathers, and at their ears hung green jewels. Precious stones of a green color were held in higher estimation by the Aztecs than any other. When the Spaniards were first admitted to an audience with Montezuma, he wore no other ornament on his head than a panache of plumes of royal green.

Green comes in the class of secondary colors, being a compound of yellow and blue, and signifies pale, new, fresh, growing, flourishing (like a green bay tree); and also unripe, when applied to either fruits or men, which, as far as the human is concerned, is a term of reproach. A person without experience, either in position, behavior, or use of anything, is termed green, and laughed at. They are fresh, new, and, instead of the admiring exclamation, How green it is! as applied to a plant, is the reproachful one, How green he is!

At different seasons of the year, different colors are appropriate in dress. Light green is the color of freshness, youth, and spring, and more suitable to be worn in the spring of the year and by young persons, than later in the season or by mature women. Dark green, like crimson and orange, is a warmer, more intensified color, with less of liveliness and freshness.

Is the type of monarchical enlightenment. With Caucasian nations it has been the symbolic color of royalty, until 'invest with the purple,' in the course of ages, comes to mean kingdom, government, power, to rule. Purple is formed by the union of blue and red, truth and valor. Happy the people who are truly governed by truth and valor! The Tyrian purple was famous in Homer's days, and our dreams of Tyre and its splendor are all colored by this most gorgeous of dyes, the manufacture of which from a species of shell fish gave this ancient city a celebrity which all its other arts combined could not equal. This was one of the symbolic colors with which the high priest's robe was wrought in figures of pomegranates upon its skirt; and when Solomon sent to Hiram, king of Tyre, for a cunning workman to assist in building the temple, he did not fail to require he should be skilled in purple. During the time of the Roman emperors, the Tyrian purple was valued so highly that a pound of cloth twice dipped was sold for about one hundred and fifty dollars. Even a purple border about a robe was a mark of dignity.

Is a color that has often been worn by martyrs; formed of a union of red and blue, it signifies love and truth, and their passion and suffering. It is the court mourning color all over Europe, with the exception of England. It is the softest of the prismatic colors, and its very name carries us in thought to the modest sweet flower which is Flora's emblem of humility.

Of one of the colors of the spectrum I have failed to speak, because there was so little to say. Orange is a bright, warm color, not quite as intense as red, still one which the eye does not readily seek. Its suitableness in dress is confined mainly to children. Upon them our eye naturally seeks for bright, warm colors, and rests with a kind of pleasure upon rich hues. There is nothing upon which the public taste requires more education than upon the arrangement and modification of colors. Gardeners need it in setting their plants and putting in their seeds; florists, in the arrangement of their bouquets; furnishers, in the decoration of apartments; and especially the fashion leaders, who decide what colors or shades must or must not be worn together. Sometimes hues are conjoined by them, that, no matter how loudly proclaimed au fait, the height of style, or à la mode, are never artistic, and no dicta can make them so. A fashion framer should needs be a natural philosopher, and hold the rudiments of all science in her grasp. Botany, mineralogy, conchology should walk as handmaidens to philosophy; optics should steer the rudder of color's bark when launched upon the sea of taste.

If, when dressed, the aim is to present a light and graceful toilet, light and delicate shades of color must be worn; no crimson, dark green, purple, or indigo, but rose, light green, azure, or lavender, with a due admixture of white, must be the hues chosen. White serves as an admirable break, and prevents the appearance of violent transition. It is none the less requisite in bouquets, where no two shades of the same color should be allowed without either white or green as a separator. Very handsome self-colored bouquets can be arranged by giving a finish of the complementary shade. One of the most beautiful I ever remember to have seen was scarlet verbenas with a base of rose-geranium leaves, the whole set in a small antique green-and-gold vase.

Although the mature fall of the year clothes itself in gay colors, it is deemed an evidence of immaturity for women in the fall time of life to sport crimson and scarlet and orange. Sober grays (which mean old, mature), quiet brown, and even sombre blacks, are rather what are looked for. To dress young when people are old, deceives no one. There is a beauty of age as well as a beauty of youth. Those who live to be old have had their share of the former: why should they seek to deprive themselves of the latter? Aside from the appropriateness of color as to age, there are yet others as to size and complexion. Light-haired men should always wear very dark cravats, in order to give tone and expression to the face. Large women should wear warm colors, if they wish to create a pleasant impression. They cannot attain grace by any aid of color, while they will lose the dignity they might naturally claim if they confined themselves to warm, grave shades.

An unartistic arrangement of light or drapery in an apartment will totally destroy the harmony of the most carefully prepared toilet. Rooms can be toned warm or cold, but, unless some especial object is sought, neutral tints should predominate, and violent contrasts should be avoided.

Who has failed to notice the fantastic tricks played at times upon some body of worshippers, where light to the church is admitted through stained glass windows? A lambent red flame lighting up the hair of a man's head, while at the same moment his beard is blue and luminous. Over the shoulders of another, the purple mantle of royalty seems about falling, investing him for a moment with regal splendors, while perhaps the cadaverous hue of his next neighbor's face well fits him to be some imagined victim of his new majesty's anger.

Color ranks as one of the earliest arts. No nation is so low but it makes some attempt at decorative color, and we may be well assured it was one of the earliest, if not the earliest method employed in transmitting intelligence. When this country was first discovered, the Peruvians were making use of small knotted cords of various colors, termed quippu, as mediums of records and messages. Our own North American savages employed wampum, made from various colored shells, for a similar purpose. Color played its part in ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics. It speaks to the eye sooner than form. A black flag hoisted upon the battle field proclaims louder than words the demoniac cruelty that reigns, while a white signifies that submission has been decided upon. Joseph's coat of many colors proclaimed the father's favoritism to his brothers, and worked a mighty change in the history of the race to which he belonged. This very instance, if we possessed no other, would prove to us the high estimation in which color was held, and its symbolic meaning, in the most ancient times.

The ermine is an animal of such spotless purity it will tolerate no stain on its fur, and by this symbolic name we designate the judge, who should be stainless, unbiassed, and incorruptible.

The highest art of the florist is put forth to procure change of color. Self tulips are valueless beside sports, and to induce this breaking various methods are put in requisition, as there is no sporting of colors from natural causes among flowers. A green rose, a blue verbena, are hailed as triumphs, and secure the propagator an enviable name either as an amateur or professional florist.

Perhaps the most curious thing connected with color is that some stars give colored light; and in one instance, in a northern constellation, a double star gives forth blue rays from one and red from the other. How our fancy might be permitted to soar away beyond the stars themselves in wondering fancies as to the meaning of this—truth and love united in a star, not as a compound color, but each retaining its own hue of blue and red! What a happy abode of truthful, loving spirits we can imagine this the dwelling place! And may there not here be a symbol of such a union?

The art of color is yet in its infancy, and although Tyrian purple was magnificent and famous, and the highly prized Turkey red unfading, yet modern chemical discovery has opened a wide variety of hues unknown to the ancients.

Colors obtained from vegetable substances have been the most numerous, those from the animal kingdom the most brilliant, and from the mineral the greatest variety from the same substance. A buff, a blue, and a black, and again a red, a blue, a purple, and a violet, are produced from the same metal.

The recent discovery of aniline colors, to be extracted from coal refuse, has given art new, beautiful, and durable shades of red, blue, purple, and violet. We know but by description what the lauded Tyrian purple was, for monopoly caused the art to be lost; but for softness, richness, and beauty of purple we have none to approach that extracted from this refuse. Nature means nothing to be lost, and waste arises from ignorance. She is a royal mistress when royally represented.

To the mineral kingdom we are indebted for most of the mordants which fix the hues derived from other sources. That in union is strength is taught by the most common art.

Much is yet to be learned in regard to color. Men have understood its correspondence sufficiently to associate red and cruelty as its lowest expression, so that the men of the bloody French Revolution received an undying name from the red cap of the Carmagnole costume—and yellow with shame, for a ruff of this color on the neck of a woman hanged drove this fashion out of England—and white with purity, as the ermine of the judge shows; although, thousands of years ago, the men of Tartary and Thibet prized the wool of the Crimean sheep stained of a peculiar gray by its feeding upon the centarina myriocephala, and although modern gardeners deepen the hues of plants by feeding them judiciously, yet few attach the requisite importance to color as history. Writers for the most part pass silently by this great aid to a correct understanding of past events. Color in costume is no less essential to a true description or representation than form; in some instances it is more so.

The color of the silken sails of Cleopatra's vessel, as she sailed down the Cydnus, proclaimed her royalty as no other could have done.

A fairy could not be depicted without her green robe, or young Aurora unless tinted with the hues of morn.

Here lies the great fault of all sun pictures. The distinctive hues of complexion, hair, and eyes are not preserved. The flaxen, the auburn, the brown hair alike take black. Light eyes and dark are undistinguishable; the clearest complexion becomes muddy[Pg 207] and full of lines if the color of the dress is such as to throw the shade upon it.

A mixture of colors in dress in which either two of the primitives predominate, is a token of barbarism, even if occurring among so-called enlightened people.

Color is an exponent of the degree of civilization.

Red finds its fitness among savage races, and with undeveloped natures.

Yellow indicates transition from barbarism to civilization.

Green, advanced civilization.

Purple, monarchical enlightenment, which is will individualized in but one.

Modification and harmony are only with people free to follow taste and select for themselves. Among the most enlightened nations these five states are all found. The highest type, shown by culture, discovery, art, literature, science, equity, and government, exists with but a few. The mass are civilized, and continue 'the mass.' It is the natural tendency of enlightenment to individualize. In proportion to genius, culture, and perseverance, is one set apart, becomes a leader of the masses, and should be a teacher of the harmony and correspondence of color, both by precept and example.

Strong contrasts are admissible in what is designed to illustrate particular things, and especially if to be viewed from a distance. To me no sight is ever more beautiful than the American flag, red, white, and blue, as the breeze opens every fold and waves it abroad for the gaze of men; the blue signifying a league and covenant against oppression, to be maintained in truth, by valor and purity; the very color proclaiming to despots and tyrannized man that in one land on the broad face of the earth liberty of conscience prevails, and freedom of speech exists. We shall not want to change it when this war is over. It is the symbol of an idea which has never yet found its full utterance. When Liberty and Union become one and indivisible, it will be the harmonious exponent of those grand ideas rooted, budded, blossomed, and bearing fruit forevermore.

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