Read this: Chromaphilia, the story of colour in art

“Colour is stronger than language. It’s a subliminal communication.” Louise Bourgeois (1911-2010)

In Stella Paul’s Chromophilia: The Story of Colour in Art, the meaning and use of colours in over two hundred artworks from the Palaeolithic period to the present day are explored and decoded in an academic study of our favourite subject. By bringing together such a volume of notable and influential works from a rich variety of visionaries –  Michelangelo, Picasso, Jean Dubuffet, Georgia O’Keefe and Marlene Dumas among them – the author highlights attitudes towards, as well as the meanings behind colour throughout history.

Chapter 4: Purple, showing Small Morning, 1808 (left) and Proofs of Colour Globes , 1810 (right), by Philip Otto Runge

Isaac Newton’s optics, impressionist theory, the philosophy of Josef Albers, the contemporary metaphysics of Olafur Eliasson – this is all covered along with revelations about the practice and process of hundreds of different artists and why they are or were passionate about particular shades.

Rather than following a timeline, the book is split into ten chapters, each one devoted to a single colour or colour group that you can dip into – Earth Colours, Red, Blue, Purple, Gold, Yellow, Green, White, Grey and Black – and each one opens on a relevant quote from an artist. “Green is a useless colour,” said Piet Mondrian, in fascinating contradiction with attitudes in 2017.  Yves Klein’s words of wisdom appropriately appear in the blue chapter: “What is blue? Blue is the invisible becoming visible… Blue has no dimensions. It ‘is’ beyond the dimensions of which other colours partake,” he said.

Johannes Vermeer (1632–75), The Milkmaid, c.1660. Rijksmuseum Amsterdam / support of the Vereninging Rembrandt

“We must pardon the mad desire for purple.” Pliny the Elder (AD 23-79)

Sistine Chapel (Cappella Sistina), by Michelangelo Buonarroti, 16th Century, fresco | The Art Archive / Vatican Museums, Vatican City / Mondadori Portfolio/Electa

The Blue Rider (1912) Kandinsky, Wassily Vasilyevich (1866-1944)

“There’s more gold in nature than we give credit for, because every day there are certain reflections where the sun rays hit and you get gold.” Louise Nevelson (1899-1988)

The Death of James Lee Byars (1982/1994), gold leaf, crystals and Plexiglas, James Lee Byars (1932–97). Marie-Puck Broodthaers Gallery, Brussels. Photo courtesy and copyright Marie-Puck Broodthaers / Estate James Lee Byars

Chromaphilia: The Story of Colour in Art by Stella Paul is published by Phaidon.

Jill Macnair


Jill Macnair has worked as an interiors journalist for 13 years, contributing to titles including Elle Decoration, The Sunday Times and The Guardian. She set up cult interiors blog My Friend’s House in 2009 with Ros Anderson and continues to run the forum daily.

The Chromologist 2019 | Farrow & Ball

The Chromologist