What color are the sash and bonnet in this painting? Wrong.

Illustration for article titled What color are the sash and bonnet in this painting? Wrong.

At the time this was painted, over 200 years ago, they would have been considered yellow. Colors aren't as eternal as we imagine them to be. The way our cultures perceive colors changes over time, just like everything else.


To add insult to injury, this painting is called Pinkie. The girl with the pink sash in the painting is called Pinkie because she was small. Her grandmother called her "Pinkie" because of her diminutive size. It refers to the pinkie finger of a hand. To be fair, it's possible that the sash was called 'pink,' because the girl was painted in the late 1700s. Some experts, however, disagree. They say the color of the sash was called 'rose.' The term 'pinke' or 'pink' in the 1600s and early 1700s was used to describe a yellowish pigment.

Going further back, there are even more puzzling color references. The Iliad and The Odyssey both have some strange uses of color. The sea and oxen were both called 'wine-looking'. The sky was called 'bronze.' Honey was called 'chloros,' or green, as was a nightingale - a bird that to modern eyes looks brown. There are explanations for each individual use. Perhaps the bird had what looked like green tints to its feathers. Or perhaps the word actually mean a warm brownish shade, which could apply to both honey and the bird. There's also speculation that the term 'green' had connotations of freshness and newness which might be applied to birdsong and fresh honey. And perhaps sediment was churned up in the sea to make it a dark wine-looking color.

But what to make of this little section? "Hector was dragged, his kyanos hair was falling about him." The word 'kyanos' was used for a dark blue pigment. There's no reason to believe that any hair was dyed blue back then, let alone Hector's. And why did people refer to the sky as bronze when they had a pigment called blue? Their eyes could definitely see the color blue, but it seems that the pigment wasn't used in everyday vocabulary until relatively late in the game.

The Greeks aren't alone in this. Many ancient cultures didn't have a working vocabulary for the color blue. Names for the colors, as we know them today, rolled out slowly. Black and white came first, and then red, yellow, and green. Blue was often used as a subset of green, instead of a different color altogether. While the sky, to ancient Greek eyes, might be lit up by the sun and turned to a golden bronze color, it would not be considered 'green'. And a darkened sea might look closer to wine than to a color associated with grass.

Late to the party as well is the color brown. It derives from an Old English word, which has been around a long time, but the word 'brun' described any dark-colored object from deep tan to black. This word rose from a Germanic word, 'bruna,' which meant a dark color with a lustrous shine. It's due to the ancient Germans that the term 'brunette' applies to everyone with hair slightly darker than blond to deep black. They all have dark, but shiny, hair.

Illustration for article titled What color are the sash and bonnet in this painting? Wrong.

Some cultures still verbally blend green and blue. The Vietnamese word 'xanh' applies to green and blue, although there is one modification for leaf green and one for sky blue. Given swatches of ambiguous color, or even non-ambiguous color, people from different cultures will identify different shades as 'blue' or 'green' depending on their understanding of the words. Sometimes culture doesn't even enter into it. Many readers will have had an argument with one of their friends, from their own culture and time period, on whether a certain color is primarily blue with hints of green, or primarily green with blueish tints. (Russian-speakers may be more adept at identifying the blue spectrum, since there are Russian words commonly used for both light and dark blue, and tests have shown that Russian speakers are more confident and quick at selecting blue shades.)

According to Basic Color Terms: Their Universality and Evolution, only once the terms for blue and green are worked out do people begin making distinctions between more subtle shades like red, pink, purple, and orange. Which explains the plight of Pinkie up there. She was painted just as the language was changing over. So her bright clothes could be a coincidence, or they could be a way of making use of that new, fashionable color, 'pink.' Which her grandmother would undoubtedly have called 'rose'.


Leave Image by Avenue via Wiki Commons

Via Online Books, Bryn Mawr, The Guardian, UCSD, Basic Color Terms, and Online Etymology.



Chip Overclock®

I totally get this. Once I started trying to match commercial printing colors to colors used on computer displays, I began to doubt my own ability to recognize any color with any kind of fidelity. I ended up buying a device that scans a color sample and returns its Pantone and RGB etc. code, and another that does the same for computer monitors. I'm still not sure I trust any of the results, but at least they're more or less consistent.

And I've had the experience I'm sure others have had with trying to ask "Are these pants black or navy blue?" while looking at them under the light in the closet, only to find out I guessed wrong when I walk outside in the broad spectrum daylight. I've taken to magic markering the label inside the pants when I first buy them.

I'm clueless.