The History of Color with Carolyn Purnell
In this four-part lecture series, we’ll explore colors as ever-changing social phenomena, tracing how they’ve evolved, taken on new meanings, and impacted societies throughout history.
What is color? An effect of the eye? Of the brain? Of nature itself? Color is all of these things, but in this course, we’ll explore the ways in which color is above all social—a direct product of history and culture. Join historian Carolyn Purnell in tracing the long history of colors in an attempt to learn more about the present, and ultimately, about ourselves. We’ll start in the ancient world, where the sky wasn’t blue and where one could use the same color word to describe honey, plants, and frightened human faces. Then we’ll pivot to the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, when new color technologies threw the visual and social world into chaos. This so-called “color anarchy” gave rise to a new consumer wonderland as well as new forms of class upheaval, environmental destruction, and scientific racism. We will also investigate the modern phenomena of color trademarks, color forecasting, and color psychology, asking whether, for example, yellow really does connote sunshine and happiness. By the end of our time together, we’ll have a more nuanced understanding of the exceptional power colors have held across societies, and see how the meanings given to them aren’t as universal or timeless as we may have been led to believe.