The murky history of the colour yellow

Indian Yellow was created by a process that allegedly restricted cows to a diet of mango leaves, leaving them in a state of near starvation. Kelly Grovier looks at the masterpieces which used the pigment.

Yellow is the cruellest colour. Long before it came to signify cowardice sometime in the middle of the 19th Century (the later insult “yellow-bellied” is from the Jazz age), yellow was the colour most often reached for by Medieval and Renaissance artists when cloaking the callous betrayer, Judas Iscariot, whose duplicitous kiss singled Christ out for the tortures of crucifixion.

Renaissance artists often painted Judas Iscariot in yellow, such as in this mural (1304-1306) by Giotto painted on the wall of a chapel in Padua, Italy

A fiery yellow is also the colour with which a mysterious hand inscribes the walls of the banquet room in Rembrandt’s Belshazzar’s Feast (1635-38) with gleaming Hebrew letters that taunt the King of Babylon with foreknowledge of his empire’s collapse, as aghast guests gaze on. Siphon yellow from the story of art and an ominous intensity disappears – a light goes out.

If legend is to be believed, some of the most memorable instances of yellow in art history –  from the transcendent shimmers of JMW Turner’s lucent landscapes to the troubled music of Vincent van Gogh’s whorling constellations – are caked in cruelty, said to be fashioned from the sickly urine of malnourished cows.

Rembrandt’s Belshazzar’s Feast shows a divine hand inscribing a warning to the king of Babylon after he blasphemously served wine in a looted sacred vessel

The waste of wasting beasts that had been force-fed nothing other than mango leaves in the Bengalese city of Monghyr was reputedly caught in terracotta pots and clarified to a syrup over an open flame. Believed to be filtered, dried, and clenched into pigment clumps called ‘piuri’ that were then sold to artists, the chalky spheres were crumbled onto the palettes of every artist from Turner to Van Gogh, who in turn smeared their lurid lemony luminescence across the surfaces of their iconic canvases and into cultural consciousness.

All that glistens is not gold

Allegedly born of abuse, surviving vestiges of so-called ‘Indian Yellow’ glisten with an obscene poignancy from the walls of museums all around the world. When seen in such unsettling light, masterpieces such as Turner’s The Angel Standing in the Sun (1846) and Van Gogh’s The Starry Night (1889) take on a different sheen, appearing to be steeped in the enduring residue of bygone brutality. No longer merely a metaphor for inner unrest, Van Gogh’s whorling stars, painted a month after the artist admitted himself to the Saint-Paul asylum in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence in May 1889, become gritty and real in their aching yellow glister.

JMW Turner took a dig at critics by showing The Angel Standing in the Sun (1846) with the lines “the feast of vultures when the day is done”

To see the stars, glimpsed in the wee hours, as it were, tinged with excretion is one thing. It is something else entirely to soak biblical luminaries, such Adam, Eve, and the Archangel Michael – whose flaming sword heralds the arrival of the Day of Judgement – in a humid atmosphere of urine. Yet Turner’s apocalyptic painting, Angel Standing in the Sun – a masterclass in conjugations of yellow and seemingly drenched in the egregious pigment – appears to do precisely that. Some admirers of Turner’s work may balk at a reading that douses its interpretation unnecessarily in excreta. But is there a more appropriate aura for a work that envisions the final throes of a sullied world to exude than one extracted from bodily excretions?

Turner’s painting portends, after all, a spiritual sloughing off of the paltriness of this world, a release: a long and lustrous letting go. Seemingly sculpted from the squeeze of desiccated urine, the jaundiced canvases of Turner (which one critic alleged suffered from ‘yellow fever’) are the unlikely forebear of American artist Andres Serrano’s provocative 1987 Cibachrome print, Immersion (Piss Christ), controversially capturing a crucifix submerged in a beaker of the photographer’s own urine.

Serrano’s murkily mystical work, which treads a muddy line between blasphemy and beauty, sacrilege and sanctity, ignited outrage from conservative senators in America when it was exhibited in 1989. They retaliated by cutting funding to the cultural endowment that had given the artist a grant to develop his work.

Sargent only worked for a few minutes each evening when painting Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose: the models posed ready for the moment when the light was exactly right

The Age of Innocence appears rather less carefree when we imagine that undergirding the work’s chirpy complexion could be a lucid layer of acidic bovine pee

 

In Britain, Indian Yellow is most frequently associated with the solar splendours of Turner’s watercolours, although it is now thought that his elder contemporary, Sir Joshua Reynolds, may have experimented with it decades earlier, when Turner was just a boy. Among Reynolds’ most famous paintings, The Age of Innocence (1788), which captures the sideways stare of a little girl sitting in an unspoilt paradise, appears rather less carefree in its jaunty vision when we imagine that undergirding the work’s chirpy complexion could be a lucid layer of acidic bovine pee.

The girl’s engaging glow and her immaculate white dress, vivified by an under-stratum of Indian Yellow, rely for their ironic allure on a rumoured unkindness unfolding half a world away in a Bengalese mango grove. Reynolds is thought to have acquired a sample of the pigment from the little-known Scottish artist Charles Smith, who had recently returned from India. It rather takes the shine off such an enchanting portrait to think that its naive subject, who became a symbol of purity, could be marinating in a puddle of cow pee.

An unsettling spectre of Indian Yellow troubles too the innocence of John Singer Sargent’s apotheosis of childhood, Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose (1885-86), painted a century after Reynolds’ beatific portrait. Mesmerised in 1885 by the sight of little girls lighting lanterns at twilight in an English garden on a late summer boating holiday, Sargent was determined to rekindle the fleeting magic of the moment with the help of a friend’s two young daughters as his models.

In a nod to the accelerating vogue of Impressionist technique then gaining ground in France, Sargent worked out-of-doors en plein air but struggled to capture convincingly the crepuscular half-light of dusk as it gloamed against the lit lanterns’ incandescent. In the end, only an admixture of Indian Yellow, in combination with a constellation of other pigments (Mars red, Mars orange, and Mars yellow), could conjure such glowing charm.

Mango masterpieces

By the time Sargent began conceiving Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose, an uneasiness about the origins of Indian Yellow had begun to swell in artistic circles. Rumours began to swirl that snake urine was the secret ingredient. Others suspected a syrupy release by dehydrated camels was to thank. After the director of Kew Gardens, Joseph Hooker, commissioned an investigation into the matter, T N Mukharji submitted a report to the Society of Arts in London in August 1883, insisting he had witnessed first-hand “a sect of gwalas (milkmen) … feed the cows solely with mango leaves” which, he said, intensifies the “bile pigment and imparts to the urine a bright yellow colour”.

The cows, Mukharji testified, “looked very unhealthy”. Though it would be another 25 years before the process was finally outlawed in Bengal and its use abandoned in Europe, Sargent’s double portrait of quivering innocence and Van Gogh’s Starry Night, created a few years later, are among the last masterpieces whose auras rely on Indian Yellow – a colour whose troubled brilliance may be gone, but like history itself, never fully flickers out.

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