Black color in european art history

Kazimir Malevich. Black Square. 1915

Black is also a color

a statement made at the famous exhibition in The Galerie Maeght in 1946 in Paris.

According to the Bible, black is a primordial color, it appeared before all other colors and was immediately endowed with a negative status: light is good, and darkness is not; in darkness there can be no life. Black is ambiguous and contradictory: it is the color of the Acrhe, the symbol of fertility, death and the place of residence of a person after death.

Cave of Niaux, France

Lascaux, France



Black till X century

Black paint appears exactly when people learned to use fire in the Paleolithic era. They burned plants and minerals, bones, teeth and horns of animals. Often, charcoal (Cave of Niaux) or manganese oxide (Laskaux) was used to obtain the paint. Black took the connotation of death back in the Neolithic age: then the black stones were used in funeral rites, sometimes figures and various objects of very dark colors were added to them.

With the adoption of Christianity, black and other dark colors are perceived extremely and exclusively negatively: it is the color of the villains and the wicked, the divine curse and the enemies of Israel; it is the color of the primordial chaos, the sinister and terrible night, the color of death. By the IX-X century in Western European Christianity, some common liturgical traditions have been formed. In 1195, Pope Innocent III describes a new system in the treatise on mass, according to which black clothes should be worn in periods of waiting and repentance (Advent, Great Lent), and also for Masses on the departed and on Good Friday.

From the Merovingian era to the era of feudalism in chronicles, charters and literary texts, real personalities or fictitious characters with nicknames “Black”, “White”, “Red” are often found. They received them not always for a dark shade of hair or skin, but also for their deeds. So, Henry III (1039-1056) received the nickname “Black” for the strict subordination of his authority to the Church and the papacy.

black between XI-XIII centuries

Illustration about 1190-1200 or about 1480-1490

With the advent of the new millennium, positive perception of black color is over — now it, like other dark colors, is only negative in itself and from XI century begins to be associated with the Devil and hell. The earliest images of the Devil in European art resemble the ancient Greek satyr: shaggy ears, small horns, goat legs and tail; later it will draw wings and make all the features that are related to it with an animal more noticeable. Hell is portrayed in the form of the mouth of a huge monster, from where flames shoot out, and in the depths a burning furnace is visible; demons fork push the sinners into there, subjecting them to terrible tortures. Like the Devil himself, his demon servants are most often depicted nude, black, hairy and ugly. In contrast to the Devil, his servants draw not dense, but faded colors, creating the impression of deathly pallor.

The devil and his servants are accompanied by a retinue, in which the real animals: bear, goat, boar, wolf, cat, raven, owl, etc .; fantastic animals: aspid, basilisk, dragon; semi-human-semi-animal: satyr, centaur, siren. In Medieval culture, all these beings are considered contemptible for various reasons. Representing the bestiality of the Devil, the artists paint with special care the surface of their bodies — the slightest flaws and damages are transmitted to the skin, wool, feathers and scales of the Devil himself and his companions. For this effect, masters used contrasts of smooth and striped, speckled and spotted, as well as different linear or cellular structures.

However, despite the connection with the devil, from IX black is the color of humility and repentance and becomes the main monastic color. From the second half of the XII century after the epistolary war of Peter the Venerable and Bernard of Clairvaux, a new trend is emerging: the color of vestments becomes the emblem of the corresponding monastic order.

Moreover, approximately from the middle of XII century in Europe there are the first crests. With the advent of heraldry, black loses the status of one of the primary colors, since black in crests is the most common color, meets not more often and not less than others, does not have any specific expressiveness or significance in an emblematic or symbolic plane. However, this only softens the negative connotation of black. In the XIII century in knightly novels, black stands for mystery, and, thanks to the fashion for crests, heraldry helps the black to weaken a strong association with the Devil, which prepares the ground for the triumph of this color in subsequent centuries.

black between XIV-XVIII centuries

During the heyday of medieval culture, dark skin is always perceived negatively and is associated with the world of the Devil and the underworld.

Therefore, in the literature, black (especially black and red-haired) characters, Saracens, often fight with Christian knights, and their external features only emphasize their malignancy. The darker the skin of the character, the more dangerous the character was.

Such disgust for the black people is also observed in the visual arts: until the sunset of the Middle Ages, dark skins are endowed not only with devils, demons, Saracens or pagans, traitors (Judas, Cain, Delilah from the Bible, Ganelon from “Song of Roland”, Mordred from the legend about Arthur), but also all sorts of criminals and intruders, usurpers, treacherous, executioners, prostitutes, lepers, beggars, etc. The next contradiction: since the end of the XIII century artists sometimes endow the Queen of Sheba and Saint Maurice with dark skin.

Until the middle of the XIV century black coloring remains a complex process, with shades a little like a real black, rather a gray or blue. To get a truly black shade, the dyers began to use the gall — a small spherical outgrowth on oak leaves.

Approximately at the same time, fashion to dark clothes is spread from Italy. This may be due to the need to limit spending on clothing and improving the domestic economy as a whole, returning to the Christian tradition of a modest and virtuous life, but — most importantly — now the clothing has vividly characterized the person (sex, age, class, rank or position). From the end of the XIV century black clothes appear in the wardrobe of the rulers of Mantua, Ferrara, Rimini, Urbino, as well as sovereigns from France, England, Spain, Portugal.

With the invention of printing in the XV century the ink is not at all like the ink that was used before it: it is a fat, dense coal-black paint, pressed by a mechanical press into the fibers of paper; even today, having opened a printed book of that time, the reader will be convinced of the steadiness and blackness of the paint. This is due to the use of linseed oil as a base, which was used by artists.

Until the beginning of the XVI century there is another revolution — bright color images (in and out of the book) are replaced by black and white. For heraldry this is a real catastrophe — without a color the crests can give incomplete, superfluous or false information, which can lead to confusion and misunderstandings. Therefore, during the XVI century engravers and printers used various tricks to give an idea of ​​the colors: letter symbols, typographical icons, miniature ornamental compositions. However, such experiments led to more confusion.

Caravaggio. Lutenist. 1595

Rembrandt. Susanna and the elders. 1647


black after XVIII century

At the beginning of the XVIII century, most artists joined the opinion of scientists; color wins over drawing. This is the time when Isaac Newton has already completed optical experiments, as a result of which he discovered the color spectrum, and the idea of the order of the arrangement of colors began to change: gradually until the end of the XVIII century the division of colors into important and secondary, warm and cold — as we understand them today — was created. Thus, black and its antipode white color remain discarded from the color world.

Pierre Soulages. La peinture. 2013

In France in the Age Enlightenment, black and brown do not occupy much of the canvas, as in the works of Caravaggio or Rembrandt. Only in the 1760s it returned to literature and art due to the popularization of exotics, which in turn causes fashion in blacks. With the appearance in England of the genre of the Gothic novel, the fashion for the gloomy is intensified.

XIX century is permeated with fantasy, esotericism and spiritualism. By the middle of the XIX century black color reigns not only in poetry and fashion, but also in ordinary life: the second industrial revolution begins.

Artists were the first against the black. A great role in the fate of painting played the theory of chemist Eugene Chevral (1786-1889), who studied how one color changes in the neighborhood with another. Since then, artists no longer use the colors of black tones, but prefer to mix colors of blue, green and red pigments.

The appearance of the photo changed the artists’ view of shapes and colors and allowed to contrast the black and white world with color in a greater degree. Cinema also reinforces the despotism of the black and white world and only after the 1960s color movies will prevail.

At the end of the Second World War, Parisian artists, intellectuals and university students dressed in black: they assume that this fashion is inspired by the portraits of Amadeo Modigliani.


There is a black which is old and a black which is fresh. Lustrous black and dull black, black in sunlight and black in shadow

Ed Reinhardt in 1967 quoted the words of Hokusai

Russian Suprematism gave black very much importance, as well as the whole direction in the art of the XX century, “Black Painting”. Ed Reinhardt in the early 1960s wrote a few canvases called “Abstract Painting. Black”, which are black square fields, in which you can see only impenetrable darkness. Piet Mondrian, Frank Stella, Richard Serra, Franz Kline, Louise Nevelson also actively used black in their works. But still, in my opinion, Pierre Soulages (born in 1918) surpassed them all: he dedicated his whole life to the black color. Since the 1950’s he puts a black paint on the canvas with a plaster shovel, and draws a drawing with a knife. After 1975, he moves from black to “beyond black” — a term, by the way, he came up with himself. However, this is by no means a monochrome. It is a mono-pigmentary technique that creates a lot of light images.

In 2014, an English high-tech company announced the creation of the world’s blackest (Vantablack), produced by growing carbon nanotubes on a metal surface. Thus, Vantablack absorbs 99.96% of the light, so the surface creates a sense of vacuum. Anish Kapoor got the right to use this technology in his works, thanks to which the viewer seems to be peering into a black hole.

Sources used in the russian language:
  1. Michel Pastoureau “Blue: the history of a color”, 2017. — 144 p.
  2. Ian Baleka “Blue — the color of life and death. Metaphysics of color”, 2008. — 408 p.
sources used in the english language:
  1. Google Arts & Culture: “The Secret History of the Color Black”
  2. Sarah Gottesman “A Brief History of Color in Art”, 2016
  3. Ann Landi “The Color That Wasn’t a Color“, 2011
  4. Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering “Vantablack is the new black”

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