EDITORIAL FEATURE

The Secret History of the Color Black

From Prehistoric paints to the origins of Black Friday

"I’ve been 40 years discovering that the queen of all colors was black," said Pierre-Auguste Renoir. But what makes black reign over all other colors?

Black has a wide range of associations. It can be linked with death, mourning, evil magic, and darkness, but it can also symbolize elegance, wealth, restraint, and power. As the first pigment used by artists in prehistory and the first ink used by book printers, black played an important role in the development of art and literature. Today, there is even a black so black that looking at it makes it seem like you are looking at a void. Read on to discover more amazing facts about the history of the darkest color.

1. Prehistoric black

Black was one of the first colors used in art. Prehistoric artists used black charcoal and iron minerals to create a black pigment that they then used to paint on cave walls. This steer from the Lascaux Caves in France was painted more than 17,000 years ago, although it was only discovered in 1940 by an 18-year-old French boy who was exploring the nearby countryside. The 2,000 paleolithic drawings found in the cave represent humans, abstract symbols, and animals, like this black ox.

Lascaux (Montignac) Caves, Ralph Morse, 1947 (Collection: LIFE Photo Collection)

2. The Greeks paint it black

The Greeks developed a highly sophisticated technique for painting black silhouettes on clay pottery. Later, they inverted the technique to paint red figures on black backgrounds. These “red figure” and “black figure” vases were signed by their makers, making them the first signed pieces of art in history. In this black-figure vase, Dionysus, the god of partying, is enjoying a large glass of wine!

Black-figure amphora by the 'Swing Painter', 540-530 BCE (Museum of Cycladic Art)

3. Black devils

In Latin, the word for “black”, ater, is associated with cruelty and evil. “Atrocious” and “atrocity” are derived from this Latinate stem. It is no surprise, then, that in Medieval paintings the devil was often painted in black.

Polyptych with Coronation of the Virgin and Saints, Cenni di Francesco di Ser Cenni, ca. 1390s (The J. Paul Getty Museum)

4. Monks at war

The Benedictine monks wore black robes as a sign of humility and penitence. In the 12th century, the “Black monks,” as they came to be called, were challenged by the Cistercian monks, who wore white. The Benedictines accused the Cistercians of being prideful, as demonstrated by their white robes. The Cistercians prepared their comeback: black, they responded, was the color of the devil, death, and sin, while their own white symbolized purity and innocence.

Saint Benedict, Ansano di Pietro di Mencio, called Sano di Pietro, ca. 1470 (Birmingham Museum of Art)

5. Masters of Ink

The true masters of Eastern "ink wash painting" were artists who were able to use only black ink to capture the spirit of a scene. The bests artists used the fewest amount of brushstrokes possible to evoke an atmosphere. Sesshu Toyo, the artist of this Fall landscape, was perhaps the most famous Japanese ink wash painter of all. Although many paintings bear his name, few can be securely attributed to him. This painting, part of a series about the seasons, was inspired by a trip Toyo took to China.

Zoom in to look closely at the way that Toyo used pressure on each brushstroke to paint a different shade of black.

Detail from Landscape of Four Seasons: Fall, Sesshu Toyo, Muromachi period, 15th century (Tokyo National Museum)

6. Black on white

The first printed book in the world, the Gutenberg Bible, featured black type on white paper because the contrast between the two colors was the easiest to read. The mass production of printed books was only possible with the invention of a new kind of printer’s ink, made by mixing soot, turpentine, and walnut oil.

Later, the first computers used green type on a black background, but when researchers found that reading accuracy improved by 26% with the traditional black on white, they made the switch as soon as the technology allowed it.

Biblia Latina, Johann Gutenberg, 1454/1455 (The Morgan Library & Museum)

7. Back in Black

Up until the 14th century, the finest cloth was dyed with red, blue, or purple dye--not black. But the arrival of high-quality black dyes and the implementation of laws restricting colored cloth to nobility meant that wealthy Italian bankers began wearing black clothes as a sign of importance. Kings all over Europe began to take notice and soon adopted the black style themselves.

The Knight in Black, Giovanni Battista Moroni, 1567 (Museo Poldi Pezzoli)

If you look closely at the cape worn by this "Knight in Black," you can see how the painter used fine shading to show the folds in the cloth.

Detail from The Knight in Black, Giovanni Battista Moroni, 1567

8. Little Black Dress

The birth of the Little Black Dress has been ascribed to Coco Chanel, who, in 1927, created a series of simple black suits and dresses that were photographed in American Vogue. Audrey Hepburn’s minimalist black Givenchy dress, worn in the movie Breakfast at Tiffany’s, made the style wildly popular. Easy to wear and always elegant, the Little Black Dress has become a wardrobe staple.

Evening Dress, Gabrielle Chanel, ca. 1927 (Iwami Art Museum)

9. The Blackest Black in the World

In 2014, an English high-tech company announced that it had made the darkest black ever seen. Made by growing carbon nanotubes on a metal surface, Vantablack, as the scientists called it, traps light to such an extent that the surface looks like a void. The company licenses exclusive use of the technology to the artist Anisk Kapoor, who uses it to give the viewer the impression that they are looking into a black hole.

Descension, Anish Kapoor, 2014 (Kochi-Muziris Biennale)

10. Black Friday

Going shopping the day after Thanksgiving is nothing new, but the term used to describe the phenomenon as “Black Friday” has gone through several variations since it was first documented in the 1950s. The first-ever use of “black friday” was in reference to the fact that many workers took the day off; in the 1960s, police officers talked about traffic being so bad that it was “black”. Afraid that talking about traffic problems would dissuade shoppers, businesses in the 1980s took the matter into their own hands and rebranded “black friday” as the day when their profits were “in the black,” or profitable.

Thanksgiving Ye Glutton, Norman Rockwell, 1923 (Norman Rockwell Museum)

Is orange really the new black? Not if you take into account the rich history of the color black. From prehistoric caves to Greek vases to medieval devils to dueling monks to Coco Chanel, black is one of art and design history’s most powerful and interesting colors (or non-colors). “Paint it Black,” the Rolling Stones sang, and we’d have to agree!

Explore more artworks in shades of black here.

Or read '10 Amazing Facts about the Color Blue' here.

By Maude Bass-Krueger
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