Finlay, Victoria, Color: A Natural History of the Palette (New York: Random House Trade Paperbacks, 2002), 448 pages, $14.95 paperback.
Using a “rainbow” analogy, Victoria Finlay introduces the purpose of her book. The author’s long-time fascination with color began with the stained-glass windows of Chartres Cathedral she experienced as a child of eight. Just as the glass prism of the windows’ projection showed the “dancing” of rainbow colors on the stone floor far below, Finlay doesn’t choose just one color (or character as she explains it) but a kaleidoscope of “personalities.” Most books on the study of color are focused on color theory or phenomenological aspects. Historic references of color are most often written as “sidebars” of larger historical texts. Finlay’s comprehensive discussion of color from multiple points of view may be unique to the field of literature.
Finlay begins her investigation of color history with the metaphor of a paint box. Each subsequent chapter explores a chosen color independently, just as one would experience a virgin paint palette before it had been used and any blending had occurred. Beginning with ochre, Finlay introduces it as the first color and looks at the chemical composition of the base element of iron oxide from which the color is derived. Geographically, the journey begins with several semantic associations of the word red – Red Indian, sinopia, bomvu – throughout the world, but the chapter settles into Australia and the South Pacific Islands visited by Darwin sharing stories and observations in sound-bites of information.
The colors black and brown are reviewed in combination, as according to Finlay they are the two “non-colors … the land of shadows.” Exploring charcoal and graphite, this chapter is set geographically in the countries influenced by Western Europe, especially Italy and France. Beginning with Pliny the Elder and the earliest drawings, Finlay discusses passion, seduction and degrees of permanence. The chapter reviewing the color white focuses on its “deadly” characteristics and “luminescent” qualities.
It is in the next chapters, the Finlay’s true connection to her endeavor is evident. Moving geographically to the New World and Middle East, the “paint box” journey comes alive with vibrant tales, colorful recipes and practical uses. Beginning with red and continuing to orange and yellow, chapters four, five and six are underscored with an “intoxication” of color. The seventh chapter investigates green. Geographically we have reached China’s door. The verdant green of rice paddies is brought to mind and the possibilities of renewal through the “unraveling of mystery” as secrets are revealed.
The chapters on blue, indigo and violet conclude the journey to the rainbow’s end. The color blue is associated with transcendency, with the sea and earthly jewels of lapis lazuli and with the moody sounds of jazz. The study of indigo places us geographically within the Indus Valley and one of the earliest plant cultivations. Spanning the world between the Middle East and the Americas indigo symbolized opportunity and commerce, as well as, rebellion and nationalism. Violet is a uniting color, bridging the world of ancient dyes and modern chemistry. Associated with royalty and ceremony, power and greed, the investigation of this color produces a journey that moves from ancient Phoenicia to modern Beirut, from Arab Tyre to Jewish Israel. It is the color violet that is honored both currently and in the past.
Color: A Natural History of the Palette is an interesting, entertaining read. In a culture weaned on sound bites of information, the format of the book keeps the reader engaged and waiting for the next bit of trivia to appear. Written in the “chatty” style of the travel journalist that is Finlay’s profession adeptly hides the skillful research that has gone into the manuscript. The choice not to use footnotes or other bibliographic references within the text keeps the sense of story intact. Sub-headings within each chapter help orient the reader searching for specific facts.