Ever an artist and art lover. MA in Fine Art from Edinburgh University and I trained as a painter at Edinburgh College of Art.
Why Do We Love Yellow Paintings so Much?
Why do people love yellow paintings so much? Why so we love artists who loved yellow? The color yellow is so uplifting and yellow paintings, like the sunflower series by Vincent van Gogh really cheer us up, but have you ever stopped to think about the history of the yellow painting? How many all-yellow or nearly all yellow paintings can you think of? I found quite a few but Vincent van Gogh with his sunflower paintings proved to be one of the first artist painting in yellow that used color not only to describe an object - in this case yellow flowers in a yellow vase - but also to use yellow to affect our emotions and to alter our mood.
At the end of the nineteenth century, yellow became the color of depravity, it was symbolic of scandal and the demi-monde. Yellow was used to both provoke and shock.
Later on artists took a step further and painted paintings about yellow - about the color yellow itself rather that just using the color to describe an object.
What is the meaning of yellow and what has yellow meant to artists through the ages? This is not a thesis, but rather the first musings on yellow, yellow paint and artist paintings that are all, or nearly all, yellow.
Let's bring a little sunshine into our lives with yellow paintings!
The Old Masters Loved Yellow
But are all-yellow paintings a new thing?
While there have been paintings in the past which feature yellow predominantly, I haven't been able to think of any or find any examples of all-yellow paintings before the Post Impressionists in the accepted history of Western Art. (If you know of any please do leave a comment in the box at the end of the article).
Artists like Rembrandt, Chardin, Vermeer and Pieter Bruegel have all painted pictures that are predominantly yellow but they contrasted the color yellow with blues or with dark chiaroscuro. Although these paintings are mostly yellow they are not really 'about' yellow - if you see what I mean. They tend to be about yellow 'subjects' ripe corn or gold for example, or they take place in dark interiors lit by penetrating rays of sunshine or candlelight.
Paintings about colors, where the color itself is either significant or even the subject, seems to be a modern phenomenon.
In the past there have been artists who loved yellow, Bruegel Rembrandt, Vermeer, So what happened at the end of the 19th century to make artists run for the sunshine colour?
This is a story of yellow in paint and pictures.
Pieter Bruegel Harvesters - an Early Example of a Painting in Yellow
Pieter Bruegel the Elder (c.1525 - 9 September 1569) was a Flemish painter renown for landscapes and peasant scenes with a slightly comic twist.
Bruegel lived at the height of the Renaissance when secular life was coming to the fore and the Catholic church was challenged by Protestantism. His genre paintings were unusual at the time - formerly painters had produced largely portraits for the rich or religious paintings, and often combined the two. Bruegel, however, looked at the ordinary people all around him, and he gained the name of 'Peasant Bruegel'.
He loved to paint the festivals and ceremonies of country life, weddings, dinners, dances, play and, as in the painting below, harvest time. Pieter Bruegel's Harvesters was an early example of a painting predominantly in yellow.
The Hay Harvest is part of a series of six paintings illustrating the months of the year. It was commissioned by the Antwerp merchant Niclaes Jonghelinck. the painting breaks new ground in it's lack of religious subject and it's unrealised style. The colour yellow, is, of course incidental in that the painting is of a field of ripe corn.
The Harvesters by Pieter Brueghel the Elder
Vase With Fifteen Sunflowers by Van Gogh - Van Gogh was an artist who loved yellow paintings
When I first thought about colour and painting predominantly or exclusively in one colour the paintings that sprang to mind were the sunflower paintings of Van Gogh. Was he the first artist to paint yellow? No, but as far as I can remember, he was one of the first western artists to paint almost monochromatic paintings in yellow. This painting of a vase of sunflowers has touches of green and tiny dabs of orange, but it is mostly yellow - yellow background, yellow foreground, yellow sunflowers and yellow vase. And Van Gogh was not alone. Around the same time other artists were exploring yellow and experimenting with monochrome.
This all-yellow painting of sunflowers was not the first monochromatic yellow painting by Van Gogh. In 1887 he had painted 'Quinces, Lemons, Pears and Grapes' where the artist even painted the frame yellow as a part of his "harmony in yellow."
Van Gogh's later work used yellow less but at his funeral, held on 30 July 1890, his body, laid out in "the painter's room", was surrounded by an array of sunflower, dahlias and other yellow flowers.
The Yellow House by Vincent Van Gogh
The Yellow House in Arles, France
What did yellow mean to him?
The Yellow House was the house that Van Gogh rented in 1888 to share with another famous Post-Impressionist artist Paul Gauguin. It was here that Van Gogh hoped to establish his longed-for "Studio of the South," where he and like-minded artists could work together. Gauguin came to stay for nine eventful and fateful weeks - but that's another story.
It was in this house that Van Gogh painted his sunflowers. He worked feverishly, as the flowers wilted quickly - working all day and every day to paint his series of twelve paintings. These he used to decorate the bedroom where Gauguin would sleep.
The address of the Yellow House was 2, Place Lamartine, Arles, in southern France and it consisted of four rooms, two on the ground floor which became his atelier and kitchen, and two smaller ones , on the first floor which faced the Place Lamartine.
This image is not all yellow. The artist himself described it as, "the house and its setting under a sulphur sun under a pure cobalt sky." Yellow and blue, a colour combination that recurs throughout the history of art.
Van Gogh was moving away from using the local colour (the colour that we see) of objects and instead to use colour to express emotion. He said, "Instead of trying to exactly what I see before me, I make more arbitrary use of color to express myself more forcefully".
The Original titles of this painting, in French were La Maison et son entourage, and then later re-titled by the artist La Rue)
Yellow and the Influence of the Japanese
It all began in 1854 when the Convention of Kanagawa opened up trading between Japan, and Europe, and the rise of the Meiji period (1868-1912) which uleashed a flood of Japanese ephemera and poured it into the west giving artists an alternative way to view the world. This new world was full of brilliant colour, fabulous caligraphy, flat and floating images, full of pattern and decoration, linear, light, and lyrical. Artists such as Monet, Manet, Degas and Van Gogh embraced the eastern was of looking at the world, along with the mind-blowing new technological inventions of electricity, steam power, iron constructions, printing and photography. Information about Van Gogh and Japonaiserie Wikipedia
This was a brilliant new world.
Van Gogh was interested in colour, in colour theories, he was looking into the colour theories of Delacroix at the same time that he began to collect ukiyo-e prints. One print in particular, The Courtesan inspired him to paint the Yellow House
Information about Japonisme Wikipedia
Paul Gauguin - Yellow Christ - Van Gogh painted the sunflower series to decorate Gauguins room in Arles
Paul Gauguin (1848 - 1903) was a contemporary of van Gogh and was also one of the Post-Impressionist group. Like van Gogh he was interested in the symbolism of color and the power of color to affect the viewer.
Aubrey Beardsley and The Yellow Book - Yellow Was a Scandalous Color
The Yellow Book was an infamous periodical, illustrated by the equally infamous and 'depraved' artist Aubrey Beardsley.
In a way this is a bit of a cheat because Beardsley drew in black on white, but I wanted to include The Yellow Book because it was a focus point for artists, writers and thinkers who came together during the 'Belle Epoque'. Oscar Wilde was one of the leading lights linked to The Yellow Book. Have a look at his poem about yellow below. The colour yellow was chosen because of it's association with the décor of the notorious and dandified pre-Victorian Regency and also the French novel which had distinctive yellow covers. In Britain there was much consternation about these novels, and in particular their influence on women. The subject matter often included the dramatic, grotesque and erotic realistically depicted. These yellow-covered books were full of storylines that covered passions, adultery, crimes and bigamy - all subjects thought to be unsuitable for the female mind! Men disliked the overt sexuality of the heroines in French novels - women like Zola's "Therese Raquin". Indeed, according to the British Medical Journal " The Lancet" French novels were responsible for such social 'diseases' as lesbianism.
The Yellow Book gave rise to the name of the "Yellow" 1890s. The first contributors were well-established and conservative authors including Walter Crane, Frederick Leighton, Edmund Gosse and Henry James. Indeed, Richard Le Gallienne, a poet who was closely identified with the "New Literature of the Decadence" thought that, apart from Beardsley's drawings, it wasn't shocking at all.
Although Oscar Wilde didn't publish anything in the book, Beardsley had illustrated Wilde's 'Salome' and Wilde was also associated with other contributors. Oscar Wilde also pointed to "the yellow book" as a corrupting influence on Dorian Gray, the principal character in "The Picture of Dorian Gray" (1891). In this case the "yellow book" in question has been thought to be A Rebours by Joris-Karl Huysmans, a deliciously decadent book that I loved during my Art School Days.
In a nice touch Vincent Van Gogh in one of his yellow paintings "Parisian Novel (yellow books), showed a pile of these risque yellow books", thus linking van Gogh to the English Aesthetic movement through the color yellow.
See the poem "Symphony in Yellow" by Oscar Wilde below.
The Yellow Book Cover 27 August 2018
Georgia O'Keeffe - Yellow Cactus - The Mother of American Modernism
Georgia Totto O'Keeffe (1887 – 1986) was an American artist who became famous for her large scale, close-up paintings of flowers. The flowers, seen in this way became almost abstract forms and her canvases became essays in a single color. She is seen as a forerunner of the Color Field Painters - see Rothko below.
Mark Rothko Yellow and Gold - One of the First Artists to Paint Paintings About Yellow
Mark Rothko (1903 – 1970) was an American painter who is usually classed as an Abstract Expressionist and he is also part of a group of American colour field painters.
These paintings were some of the first to be about colour. Rothko floated rectangles of colour over a coloured background creating simple but powerful images. This painting consists of three rectangles in shades of yellow and deep red/ochre over a yellow ground.
The Meaning of Yellow
What does yellow mean exactly?
The meaning of colours is not an exact science but there is some agreement in what yellow means.
The positive meanings of yellow are light, brightness and sunshine. Yellow is a happy colour that brings a smile to our faces, and marketeers know that we are more likely to buy products in yellow packages than any other colour.
In psychology yellow is the colour of enthusiasm and fun but also anxiety and a tendency to criticism of self and others.
Negative meanings of yellow are cowardice and deceit. Not for nothing the old cowboys called their foes yellow-bellies!
The Kiss by Gustave Klimt
One of the most well loved images in the history of art
All that glistens is not gold, but this image shimmers with the yellow of gold. rich, stylised and exquisitely decorative, we have all come to adore The Kiss by Klimt, Austrian Symbolist painter, executed between 1908 and 1909 draws on the organic, linear style of Art Nouveau and elements from the British Arts and Crafts movement. Klimpt used oil paint and layers of gold leaf to achieve this rich effect.
The Kiss - A Study in Gold
A Yellow and White Still Life - Painting in monochrome - painting yellow
This is the second yellow still life that I set up for my small art class that I run in Limousin, South West France about painting yellow. The first was an all-yellow grouping. In this group I included white to explore refelected colour a little. The main challenge was to achieve dark yellow tones without creating muddy colour.
We began to think a bit about colour in our art class, the meaning of colour, tone and colour. I chose yellow fairly arbitrarily and wondered if I could find enough yellow things around the house to make a still life in yellow. I need not have worried. The first thing I found is that product bottles and packaging is yellow; apparently yellow sells. People like yellow. Why? I looked into the psychology and meaning of colour and found out a few fascinating facts that I've explored further below.
Our artwork, painting yellow, was a great success. Plenty of yellow paint was used and a good time had by all.
Symphony In Yellow by Oscar Wilde - A beautiful poem about yellow set to music
Let's finish with a poem about yellow by Oscar Wilde of the 'yellow 90's' notoriety.
I do hope you've enjoyed this short excursion into art, artists and the color yellow.
More Paintings by Artists Who Loved Yellow
- Yellow Painting: October 1958 May/June 1959 by Patrick Heron
- Yellow City 1914 by Egon Schiele
- Gray and Gold - The Golden Bay - James McNeill Whistler
- The Little Note in Yellow and Gold by James Abbot McNeill Whistler
- Arrangement in yellow and grey 1858 by James Abbot McNeill Whistler
- "Parisian Novel (yellow books) by Vincent Van Gogh
Where Did I Get My Information? - Links to my sources
The Novel - Victorian Women's Guilty Pleasure
- Metropolitan Museum
Pieter Bruegel - The Harvesters
- Empower Yourself With Colour Psychology
The Colour Yellow
There is no blue without yellow and without orange.
Do You Like The Color Yellow? - Or does yellow make you bellow - no!
© 2013 Barbara Walton
Share Your Thoughts on Yellow Paintings and The Color Yellow - I'd love to hear from you
Virginia Allain from Central Florida on May 14, 2020:
I do like yellow fields of wheat or big yellow sunflowers. Mostly, those remind me of my Kansas childhood.
kathleen marie on November 28, 2019:
For many years I had flashbacks to a period of amnesia when I was pregnant with a baby I relinquished for adoption. One might assume amnesia covers negative facts, but my flashbacks were in bright white and yellow and were quite pleasant. I think they are from repressed bonding with my baby before she was born.
Rose Jones on July 10, 2013:
What a wonderful and creative lens. Just lovely. Posted to my board: Art I love. I found the discussion of the symbolism of yellow interesting.
Barbara Tremblay Cipak from Toronto, Canada on July 10, 2013:
I just love the color Yellow - it's so cheerful - love the life it gives to a space - also am a big fan of the color orange
Deb Kingsbury from Flagstaff, Arizona on July 10, 2013:
Some familiar pieces here, like Van Gogh's sunflowers and "The Kiss," but I've seen some that are new to me that I really like, like the Georgia O'Keefe piece. I have a few paintings around the house, myself, that feature yellow. It's a bright, lively accent color I like to work in, and art is a great way to do that.
Ruthi on July 10, 2013:
I had no idea of the rich history of yellow artistry. Thank you for enlightening me!