Black : The History of a Color

4.07 (330 ratings by Goodreads)
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Black--favorite color of priests and penitents, artists and ascetics, fashion designers and fascists--has always stood for powerfully opposed ideas: authority and humility, sin and holiness, rebellion and conformity, wealth and poverty, good and bad. In this beautiful and richly illustrated book, the acclaimed author of Blue now tells the fascinating social history of the color black in Europe. In the beginning was black, Michel Pastoureau tells us. The archetypal color of darkness and death, black was associated in the early Christian period with hell and the devil but also with monastic virtue. In the medieval era, black became the habit of courtiers and a hallmark of royal luxury. Black took on new meanings for early modern Europeans as they began to print words and images in black and white, and to absorb Isaac Newton's announcement that black was no color after all. During the romantic period, black was melancholy's friend, while in the twentieth century black (and white) came to dominate art, print, photography, and film, and was finally restored to the status of a true color.
For Pastoureau, the history of any color must be a social history first because it is societies that give colors everything from their changing names to their changing meanings--and black is exemplary in this regard. In dyes, fabrics, and clothing, and in painting and other art works, black has always been a forceful--and ambivalent--shaper of social, symbolic, and ideological meaning in European societies. With its striking design and compelling text, Black will delight anyone who is interested in the history of fashion, art, media, or design.
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Product details

  • Hardback | 216 pages
  • 229 x 229 x 25.4mm | 1,219g
  • New Jersey, United States
  • English
  • 106 color illus.
  • 069113930X
  • 9780691139302
  • 27,722

Review quote

Winner of the 2009 Bronze Medal in Fine Art, Independent Publisher Book Awards One of Choice's Outstanding Academic Titles for 2009 "Who would have thought the history of a single color could be so fascinating? Black: The History of a Color, by Michel Pastoureau, (Princeton University Press, $35) proceeds chronologically from cave painting to modern fashion and focuses on mythology, heraldry, religion, science and painting along the way. The author, a historian at the Sorbonne, narrates developments in the material, aesthetic and sociological dimensions of the color black with infectious, wide-ranging curiosity and easy-going erudition. After this you'll want to read his previous book, from the same publisher, Blue: The History of a Color."--Ken Johnson, New York Times Praise for Michel Pastoureau's Blue: "Pastoureau's text moves us through one fascinating area of activity after another... The jacket, cover and end-papers of this luscious book are appropriately blue; its double-columned text breathes easily in the space of its pages; it is so well sewn it opens flat at any place; and fascinating, aptly chosen color plates, not confined to the title color, will please even those eyes denied the good luck of being blue."--William H. Gass, author of Blue: A Philosophical Inquiry, writing in the Los Angeles Times Book Review "This handsome, strikingly designed, richly illustrated book traces the history of the color black in Europe... Like his earlier Blue, this book is well researched, skillfully written, and a pleasure to read."--R. M. Davis, Choice "Michael Pastoureau, in Black: The History of a Color, sees the rise of puritanism and Protestantism as the war of the colours--a war against vivid colour that black usually won... He has a terrific story to tell, and a multitude of gorgeous images to help tell it."--Robert Fulford, The National Post "Black is a penetrating, erudite, thoughtfully illustrated cultural history of a color, by Michel Pastoureau, an author whose earlier work has included--surprise, surprise--Blue."--Nicholas A. Basbanes, The Worcester Telegram & Gazette "French popular art historian Pastoureau here tackles one of the most complex and interesting colours, the favourite of 'priests and penitents, artists and ascetics, fashion designers and fascists.' This social history is lavishly illustrated with paintings, movie stills, photo portraits and fashion shoots."--The Globe & Mail "Until I came upon Michel Pastoureau's 2000 book Blue: The History of a Color it had never occurred to me colors had a history. Turns out they do, and tracking the significance first of blue, now black, provides a satisfyingly fresh angle of approach to the past."--Frtiz Lanham, The Houston Chronicle "What is interesting in sociological histories like Pastoureau's is their revelations about how cultural attitudes change. Black's connection with death began as early as ancient Egypt, when people left black stones on funeral pyres, not in a ghoulish way but as a symbol of rebirth (the Egyptian death divinity, Anubis, was painted black)... But this book will have you seeing black in more shades than you imagined."--Victor Swoboda, The Montreal Gazette "The author of more than a dozen art history books, Pastoureau's work is accessible, generous and witty. What's more, like all good illustrated books, this one is has more than 150 pictures in support of its superb text."--Marc Horton, The Edmonton Journal "Now Princeton University Press has published a social history of this most allusive of hues, Black: The History of a Color, by Michel Pastoureau, a French scholar and author of a similarly titled history of the color blue. Both are lavishly illustrated coffee table books that follow their colors down the time line of European history."--John Zeaman, Design NJ Magazine "This erudite and elegantly written exploration of the history of black charts its changing symbolism and shades of meaning as a colour of death and rebirth, of religious authority and evil, of luxury and poverty."--Fiona Capp, The Age (Australia) "Pastoureau combines a charming, conversational tone with a haughtiness I found entirely endearing. A director of studies at the Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes at the Sorbonne in Paris, he writes from a position of professorial confidence. He has conducted extensive research into the history of colour for a quarter century and his aim is to correct misapprehensions and banish ignorance. His style is not to inquire, explore or interrogate, in the fashion of academic studies today. It is to impart knowledge."--Sebastian Smee, The Australian "As the handsomely produced book demonstrates, black is the colour of the pigment used to draw the great bull of Lascaux, of evil, the devil, funerals, the fecundity of the Earth, bears, crows, hell, half the pieces on a chess board, Satan, heretics and priests alike, mysterious cats and, in the 12th century, the mantle of Mary, the mother of Jesus."--Sydney Morning Herald "[T]his book ... reads quite naturally as English ... and it has something worthwhile to say in a style that is informative rather than aimed mostly at enhancing the reputation of the writer among his academic peers... There is much valuable information about the history of dying in different periods and the fashionability of the color black among the nobility and upper classes (later the wealthy merchant class) of Europe."--Colin Blogs Praise for Michel Pastoureau's Blue: "A generous, gorgeous book full of nearly 100 historical and artistic plates, all illustrating the meaning and role of the color blue in Western history... Pastoureau has created something rare: a coffee table book that is also a good read. And not just a good read, but a compelling read."--Brian Bouldrey, Chicago Tribune
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About Michel Pastoureau

Michel Pastoureau is a historian and director of studies at the Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes de la Sorbonne in Paris. He is the author of many books, including "Blue: The History of a Color" (Princeton) and "The Devil's Cloth: A History of Stripes".
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Rating details

330 ratings
4.07 out of 5 stars
5 36% (118)
4 41% (136)
3 18% (61)
2 4% (12)
1 1% (3)
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