Over the Rainbow

By Ana Daniel
David Scott Kastan Michael Marsland

“On Color”
David Scott Kastan 
with Stephen Farthing
Yale University Press, $28

On the East End of Long Island, surrounded by sea, our world is bathed in a glorious light that illuminates and transforms everything, from dawn to sunset. Even on moonless nights, our clear skies reveal a star-spangled deep blue firmament. No wonder that a meeting between a writer and a painter — David Scott Kastan with Stephen Farthing, in Amagansett — should have led them to collaborate on a book titled “On Color.”

Strictly speaking, this is not so much a book about color as a ramble through allusions and associations triggered by color in chapters headed by the spectrum of a rainbow: red, orange, yellow, green, blue . . . and violet, interrupted by a digression on indigo (the dye of bluer-jeans) and ending with black, white, and gray. In fact, this is more an entertaining philosophical tract that searches for the meaning of color rather than its sources and uses. 

We are told in the first chapter that “color inhabits some indistinct borderland between the objective and the subjective.” It “inevitably exceeds language . . . the sensation of color is physical; the perception of color is cultural. . . . Always with color there is something more than meets the eye.” Further, “it turns out that what we see are the colors of the mind . . . the mind is the magician.” What follows is a mystery story of sorts. 

Talking about red, Bertrand Russell’s proposition is paraphrased to say that “without a perceiver, not only is there nothing that is red but there is nothing that can properly be thought of as color.” Or a perfume? Or a taste? Perhaps.

“On Color” is informatively and eclectically anecdotal, touching on art history (Monet for violet), literary exposition (Melville for white), politics (Karl Marx for red in the chapter on green, and George Washington for yellow, quoting him saying in a letter, when informed that Asians were colored, “I had conceived an idea that the Chinese . . . were white”), and many other such interesting miscellanea. 

While still in the chapter called “Roses Are Red,” we read about colorblindness, eight times more common in men than women. I remember that when rough shooting over dogs once, I was told to wear yellow glasses so as to reduce color and see movement better. Maybe nature provided some male hunters with a built-in competitive advantage, and left the fruit gathering to the girls?

“On Color” does not make a sharp distinction between paint and dye except in the chapter on indigo, which is mainly about the dye and how it was made in the bad old days of slavery. Painters always found ways to mix colors on the palette to obtain the hues and tints they wanted. But dye was another matter. Before the 19th century, when chemistry allowed almost any color to be synthesized to dye textiles, the range of colors available for that purpose was limited.

In 1856, an 18-year-old Englishman called William Henry Perkin patented the first chemical dye he named mauve (French for mallow). Never seen as a textile color before, it became a decade-long fashion rage (see “Colors: The Story of Dyes and Pigments,” published by Abrams).

An important theme of this book is that color stands for itself. A painting by van Gogh titled “Basket With Six Oranges” is not about oranges, it is about the color orange. Vincent himself is quoted as writing to his brother that “the painter of the future is a colorist such as there hasn’t been before.” Once into the 20th century, “color, which once was what allowed painting to mimic reality, came to express the reality of what painting is.” Think of Rothko, Pollock, and Ellsworth Kelly, or see the work of Hector Leonardi at the Drawing Room in East Hampton until July 15.

It is also a personal and opinionated book, which engages the reader and stimulates an internal discussion with the page. For this reader, as an example, statements like this one, “Once color becomes the predictable formal condition of photography, monochrome [i.e., gray] photographs begin to lend their subjects a comforting patina of age, robbing the image of much of its historical specificity,” raise more questions than responses of recognition. But that is part of the fun.

This is a gift book, beautifully produced with fine illustrations and a seductive dust cover — a book to be kept on your night table to be read episodically or left in a guest room, to amuse a sleepless guest. 

Ana Daniel is the special projects editor for The Southampton Review. She lives in Bridgehampton.

David Scott Kastan is the George M. Bodman professor of English at Yale University. He lives part time in Amagansett.

Vincent van Gogh, “Basket With Six Oranges,” 1888, private collection