At Large  October 12, 2021  Anna Claire Mauney

The Cultural Significance of the Color Yellow

Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (Vincent van Gogh Foundation)

Vincent Van Gogh, detail of Sunflowers, Arles, January 1889. Oil on canvas.

The color yellow has a rich cultural history that rivals the warmth of the various shades that it comes in. Often linked to the sun, it has come to symbolize a multitude of things from power and divinity to peasantry and isolation.

Wikimedia Commons.

Horse in the Lascaux Caves.

Yellow ochre—a rich, earthy shade of the color—is one of the earliest pigments utilized by humans. It appears in a now well-known prehistoric cave painting of a horse in Lascaux. Though the product of several generations, these caves are estimated to be around 17,000 years old.

In Buddhist literature, the Buddha is said to have a golden complexion. Within the religion—which was founded 2,500 years ago—and throughout surrounding cultures, the shade is therefore associated with divinity and it often covers Buddist temples.

In many Pre-Columbian cultures of South and Central America, golden artworks and cultural items were once numerous. Though yellow and gold were central to these cultures, golden items were not highly valued for their luxuriousness or rarity because they were not rare in pre-colonial times. Still, these objects were precious and carried vital information about the cultures and peoples of this region.

The Tolita-Tumaco culture, front view of Standing Figure, 100 B.C.–A.D. 100, Gold.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Jan Mitchell and Sons Collection, Gift of Jan Mitchell, 1995.

The Tolita-Tumaco culture, front view of Standing Figure, 100 B.C.–A.D. 100, Gold.

The Tolita-Tumaco culture, side view of Standing Figure, 100 B.C.–A.D. 100, Gold.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Jan Mitchell and Sons Collection, Gift of Jan Mitchell, 1995.

The Tolita-Tumaco culture, side view of Standing Figure, 100 B.C.–A.D. 100, Gold.

This changed after the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors and the implementation of colonization. During the colonial period, material cultural items made from and coated in gold were stolen and destroyed in the European search for riches.

And, of course, Vincent van Gogh’s use of yellow has been a topic of interest and speculation for decades. Some theories verge on conspiratorial but none have been proven.

Wikimedia Commons. 

Vincent van Gogh, Arles: View from the Wheat Fields, June 1888. Oil on canvas. Musée Rodin.

More than anything, Van Gogh’s repeated use of the color yellow seems to have been inspired by the artist’s time spent in the sun-drenched countryside of Arles.

While many of the artist's most important works—Sunflowers, The Bedroom, The Yellow House—are dominated by the color, it is important to note that the artist’s palette was not always so warm and that this type of evolution is a common occurrence in an artistic career.

Wikimedia Commons.

Paul Gauguin, Le Christ jaune (The Yellow Christ), 1889. Oil on canvas.

Interestingly, Van Gogh’s contemporary Paul Gauguin was more clear about his own use of the color yellow and what he meant by it. The artist even stated that he used the color as a focal point in Le Christ jaune (The Yellow Christ), to represent the isolation and piety of the local peasants kneeling around the figure Jesus in this painting.

About the Author

Anna Claire Mauney

Anna Claire Mauney is Managing Editor for Art & Object. A writer and artist living in North Carolina, she is interested in illustration, the 18th-century, and viceregal South America. She is also the co-host of An Obsessive Nature, a podcast about writing and pop culture.

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