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No. 3288:

by Celeste Williams

Today we consider "Yellow Bellies". The University of Houston presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

It all began with our sun, a G-type main sequence star classified as a yellow dwarf. What kid hasn't grabbed a yellow Crayola and scrawled a luminous disc with rays? The color from earliest times has represented light and warmth.

Lascaux horse, yellow ochre pigment
Lascaux horse, yellow ochre pigment   Photo Credit: French Ministry of Culture, Wikimedia Creative Commons

First used by Neolithic man, yellow pigment was found in one of the earliest figural pieces of human art discovered: a yellow ochre horse depicted in the cave of Lascaux, 17,000 years old, painted with naturally occurring minerals. The Egyptians used Orpiment, an arsenic yellow, for its glowing beauty despite its toxicity. Helios, the Greek god of the sun, was depicted with a yellow orb in his hand, wearing Massicot garments. Roman matrons wore yellow gowns, a sign of femininity in Imperial Rome.

Orpiment   Photo Credit: Robert M. Lavinsky, Wikimedia Creative Commons

In the drab Middle-Ages in Europe, yellow sadly became associated with jaundice, sickness and death: an ill omen. It became the color of fools' costumes, and later, garments for the insane. In China though, gold and yellow belonged exclusively to the realm of the emperor, whose embroidered silken tunics, yellow roofs and golden road, spoke to the power of the monarch. Further in Asia, saffron robes of Buddhist monks, dyed with spice tinctures of turmeric, enhanced respect and reverence. The yellow resin Gamboge adorned manuscripts.

Imperial Portrait of Chinese Emperor Daoguong
Imperial Portrait of Chinese Emperor Daoguong   Photo Credit: Public Domain, Wikimedia Creative Commons

In the 18th and 19th c., new less poisonous pigments such as Karl Hermann's Cadmium Yellow and Vauquelin's Chromium Yellow were synthesized, and yellow underwent a Renaissance. Vincent van Gogh's "Sunflowers" exuded sunshine, his houses were "buttery yellow". Yet his "Night Café" interior glowed phosphorescent with a sickly greenish-yellow light that hinted of madness.The duality of yellow is poignant: Yellow-bellied sapsuckers were revered by naturalists since their discovery, yet being called "yellow-bellied" marked a person as a coward, weak. This was the time of yellow fever, named for the night sweats it caused, a mosquito-borne viral illness that sapped one's strength.

Van Gogh, Vierzehn Sonnenblumen in einer Vase, 1889
Van Gogh, Vierzehn Sonnenblumen in einer Vase, 1889   Photo Credit: Public Domain, Wikimedia Creative Commons

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker
Yellow-bellied Sapsucker   Photo Credit: NPS Patrick Myers, Wikimedia Creative Commons

In the 20th c. yellow taxis and school buses, yellow warning signs and road stripes, and fluorescent yellow work vests projected safety through high visibility. The yellow brick road in the Wizard of Oz became an iconic path to dreams. Pop Art made lively use of yellow in the 1960s as did the Beatles with the "Yellow Submarine". Yellow is one of the brilliant primary colors in the universal CMYK printing system. Sulfa drugs, derived from the yellow element sulfur, save lives.

Yellow Taxi
Yellow Taxi   Photo Credit: unstable atom, Wikimedia Creative Commons

In modern times, yellow has largely lost any negative cultural connotations and projects energy, enthusiasm, and light-heartedness. "Yellow, yellow, yellow, yellow!" the effervescent opening lines of William Carlos Williams' poem "Primrose" sums up the joyful sentiment!

I'm Celeste Williams for the University of Houston where we are interested in the way inventive minds work.

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Pastoureau, Michel, Yellow, The History of a Color, Princeton University Press, Princeton NJ, 2019.

Jennings, Simon, Artist's Little Book of Color, Firefly Books, 2017.

Adams, Sean, Designer's Dictionary of Color, Abrams, New York, NY, 2017. accessed March 01, 2023

Engines of Our Ingenuity, No. 2389In Praise of Sulfur by Dr. John Lienhard.

Thanks to Alumna Kathryn Jolly for literary inspiration.


This episode first aired March 14, 2023.