A History of Color (Or Why Art Will Not Save Us in Times of a Pandemic)

Pinpointing whiteness as the umbrella under which artistic productions and their system of circulation have historically been upheld since the 17th Century, curator Mariana Leme carries out a historical review that questions the discourses of difference–emphasized by the pandemic– that instrumentalize otherness in the present.

In moments of profound crisis such as the one we are currently experiencing, Terremoto invites us to reflect on the “narrative movements that can suggest artistic practices and thoughts to interweave meanings fractured by colonial logic.” On this basis, I would like to argue that artistic practices as we know them today do not escape colonial logic, but owe their very existence to it.

In the words of cultural theorist Simon Gikandi, there is a “ghostly [phantasmagoria] inside the symbolic economy of civility and civilization”,[1] which, with the Coronavirus pandemic, seems to have shown its most perverse side. This phantasmagoria has a color: it’s white. Therefore, it seems unlikely that art has the power to interweave meanings; however, by their fragmentation, it can help us reconsider practices that are more ethical than those that promote a false celebration of difference.

This article is about color; the color of paint, the color of civilization, the color of skin. It deals with how the primacy of color in art history is closely related to the establishment of modern Western identity, based on the autonomy of the subject, the praise of culture and slavery.


It is said that in Rubens’ works, when carefully examined, the colors and lights are exaggerated, that they are no more than artifices, and that, in short, they are by no means what we normally see in Nature. Ah, the beautiful artifice!

— Roger de Piles, 1681[2]

Every colonized people–in other words, every people in whose soul an inferiority complex has been created by the death and burial of its local cultural originality–finds itself face to face with the language of the civilizing nation, that is, with the culture of the mother country. The colonized is elevated above his jungle status in proportion to his adoption of the mother country’s cultural standards. He becomes whiter […]

— Frantz Fanon, 1952[3]

An interesting debate animated European intellectual circles in the second half of the 17th century, which divided the supporters of drawing (represented by the works of Nicolas Poussin) and color (enthusiasts of Peter Paul Rubens).[4] In general terms, drawing would be closer to the idea, according to the Platonic tradition, which recognizes painting as a weak simulacrum of truth. On the other hand, color would be matter, artifice, make-up; truth corrupted by reality.

However, the supporters of color had given the matter an ontological dignity, which, like artifice, make-up, and taste, came to be understood as the truth itself, in terms of civilization. In other words, the truth could be found in the materiality of things, among which works of art would be privileged objects. In the words of art historian Jacqueline Lichtenstein,

Recognizing reason only in the worldly forms of wit, the authors of the grand siècle (who were also its actors) never differentiate offenses of taste from errors of thinking. They take incivility not only as proof of an indelicate sensibility but also as a sign of mistaken reasoning.[5]

Jean de La Bruyère, an intellectual of the time, stated a curious analogy by saying that “after the spirit of discernment, the rarest things in the world are diamonds and pearls.”[6] Thus, superfluous objects such as works of art would be central to civilization, constituted, at the same time, by taste and reason. Along with the human subject, between the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, art becomes autonomous, whose power would be in the refusal to be useful, reinforced by the uniqueness of being something special. In addition to the symbolic rituals of society, it would be up to the man of taste (and some “exceptional” women) to recognize it among worldly objects and thus refine its intellect.

It turns out that the importance of the cultivation of the spirit through art was established at a time when the European metropolises flourished thanks to slavery. Perhaps this is not a contradiction: if art no longer fulfills a social function in the West, only a few would have access to it; in other words, the idea of the autonomy of art presupposes a hierarchy among human beings. At that time, in addition to having their bodies transformed into highly profitable commodities, enslaved Africans were responsible for growing products, which like art, were valuable and superfluous: sugar, coffee, and tobacco. The semantic ambiguity between artistic and agricultural cultivation seems to have reached a critical point.

If slavery is as old as the so-called history of humanity, the specificity of Atlantic slavery was that its “primary commodity was black bodies, sold and bought to provide free labor to the plantation complexes of the new world, whose primary products […] were needed to satiate the culture of taste and the civilizing process”, according to Gikandi.[7] In 1704, a French dictionary already had the entry nègre, the color black, as a synonym for the “African slave.”[8] Around 1725, the word civilization also changed its meaning, and what used to mean “making the civil a criminal cause” began to denote codes of sociability: “the tendency of a people to polish or, rather, to correct its customs and uses by producing in civil society a morality that is luminous, affective, loving and abundant in good works.”[9] It seems that the self-image of the “civilized” slavers depends on contrast, but it does not show their color: it is luminosity and design; idea: whiteness.


In 1681, the theorist and painter Roger de Piles published a treaty defending the relevance of color in relation to drawing. He argued:

God, in creating bodies, provided ample material for creatures to praise Him and to recognize Him as their Author; but in making them colorful and visible, He gave the Painters the opportunity to imitate Him in all His power, and to draw from nothing a second Nature which had only the idea of being. Indeed, everything would be on Earth, and bodies would be sensitive only by touch if the diversity of colors had not distinguished them from one another.[10]

This brief passage is significant: without color, there would only be vague ideas in the world, and it would only be possible to identify bodies by touching them, like strange ghosts. In pictorial terms, here is the phantasmagoria of whiteness of which Gikandi spoke: it resembles the divine essence, and that is why it is not visible. De Piles defends the excellence of painters through visible color, and it’s remarkable that works of art have celebrated difference, like rhetoric and artifice, since at least the end of the 17th century. This is also the case of Young Black Man Holding a Basket of Fruit and a Young Girl Stroking a Dog (1684) by Antoine Coypel.

The painting, which belonged to the collection of King Louis XIV, shows a page in a turban in the foreground, wearing sumptuous fabrics and bestowing the viewer with the exuberance of colonial goods. Right behind, a young white woman looks at him with satisfaction, next to a dog that can be interpreted as a symbol of loyalty. Besides the animal, this interior scene is very symbolic as a whole, and can also mean the loyalty of the colonies to the metropolis and the supposed harmonious relationship they had.

“The claim of innocence,” of the whites, says Wekker, “is a double-edged sword: it contains not-knowing, but also not-wanting-to-know,”[16] and, therefore, the innocent and phantasmagoric whiteness, maintains its comfortable place of power.

According to De Piles’ recommendations, the skin color differences in the painting creates a contrast between the bodies, as well as a specular relationship between black and white, metropolis, and colony. There is a subtle hierarchy, as the dark-skinned man is used for picturesque purposes. Coypel’s painting, besides pointing out the social diversity that existed in France at that time, is, therefore, one of the first iconographic examples of “of the European’s feeling of superiority (…) [over] the native”[11] as Frantz Fanon would say almost three hundred years later. Therefore, art can be a privileged position from where to understand the profound relationship between colonialism, the modern subject, and the hierarchies of color, visible in paintings and treaties, long before it was theorized in racial terms, which would only happen in the second half of the 18th century.[12]

The pictorial contrast of the young black man seems to reinforce, and even create, whiteness that “appears in the most prosperous period of the Atlantic economy”. In the words of historian Aurelia Michel: “The fact that whiteness precedes race shows us a second thing: it is in the context of the American continent, where the Europeans have established a colonial Other, discriminated by color.”[13] The painting shows the creation of the hierarchy between human beings through color, which is constitutive for it as a practice. And, perhaps, this is the great contribution of material culture: not as a set of documents illustrating the civilization of an era, but capable of shaping it, symbolically. [14]

If the contrast of skin tones in the 17th century was recommended as a beautiful artifice, one hundred years later, one of the most famous Western philosophers, Immanuel Kant, places civilization, art, and color in a direct relationship. Radicalizing the discreet hierarchy of Coypel’s painting, the phantasmagoria of whiteness becomes unmistakable in the Observations on the Beautiful and the Sublime. According to Kant, color would be even more decisive for the formation of the subject than freedom itself, a fundamental concept for Enlightened philosophy and contemporary society:

“The Negroes of Africa have by nature no feeling that rises above the ridiculous. Among the millions of Negroes who were deported from their countries, despite the fact that many of them were released, not one was found to present anything great in art or science, or in any other skill; while among the whites, it is often the case that those who by their conditions rise from a humble background and acquire a certain prestige in the world by virtue of excellent gifts. So essential is the difference between these two human races, that it seems to be as great in relation to mental abilities as in the difference of colors.”[15]


The vision of the “colorists” of the 17th and 18th centuries seems to echo today, when, in a moment of deep crisis, cultural agents defend a special character of art, as a powerful ally in difficult times. According to this argument, art, created “by the virtue of excellent gifts”, would be even more important than the pragmatic aspects of our lives. In fact, some say that the virus has forced us to give ourselves a break from the frenzy of travel, vernissages, art fairs, etc. so that we can devote ourselves to what really matters: art, the superfluous. But it is only whiteness that can enjoy such a deserved delight.

For that matter, if autonomous art owes its very existence to the colonial mirror, and denies it, perhaps that explains why it is perversely open to what is different, only to reinforce its phantasmagoria. As in 17th-century painting, cultural institutions have tried to improve their prestige through the contrast of colors, promoting exhibitions of non-white artists, hiring Black and Indigenous civil servants, sexual dissidents, etc. But a crisis is enough to set them aside, to discard them, many of them being even deprived of an employment contract.

A calamity like the one we are experiencing seems to highlight the structure of art institutions, and art itself as an institution. Not by chance, anthropologist Arlene Dávila declared that the crisis of Covid-19 buried the “romance of the art world with diversity”. Dávila illustrates her argument with the case of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, which recently laid off low-ranking workers, when “less than a year ago, the ‘New MoMA’ reopened […] after its $450 million renovations,” boasting a more “inclusive” exhibition program for its collection.

It is common to say that modern art would have broken with its elitist past. To follow the example of this landmark museum, simply look at one of the paintings in its collection to see how much of an artifact color diversity is. In the Demoiselles d’Avignon, Pablo Picasso “appropriated” a subordinate African culture in order to distort it, and for this reason, he was (and still is) one of the most famous artists in the world. Picasso’s strategy, however, ends up praising himself and his own culture. Ah, what a beautiful artifice! Roger de Piles would say.

Established as the great symbolic capital of the West between the 17th and 18th centuries, whiteness remains the norm: it is useless to write about freedom while drinking coffee from the plantations, as the Enlightened did. At best, it would be naive; at worst, evil; it is “white innocence,” according to anthropologist Gloria Wekker’s concept. And let us not forget that the real revolution for freedom was carried out by the slaves themselves, in 1791.“The claim of innocence,” of the whites, says Wekker, “is a double-edged sword: it contains not-knowing, but also not-wanting-to-know,”[16] and, therefore, the innocent and phantasmagoric whiteness, maintains its comfortable place of power. The “actions for diversity” in art will also be harmless, as long as the colonial/civilizing ideals on which it is based are not dismantled. The “diverse,” so celebrated, always depends on a reference: different in relation to whom?

Questioning the very idea of diversity — so popular in art today —is perhaps a good start. Can this questioning be a first step from art towards processes of reparation for colonialism? And for that, it is the Others, the non-whites, who must occupy the decision-making positions, thus ceasing to exercise their function as the artifice of color in the most precarious and subordinate positions of the art system. To conclude with the words of researcher Brenda Caro Cocotle, “Perhaps the museum,” or art as a whole, I would say, “cannot be decolonized, but at least it could find its way into another institutional and work ethics.” Only then can art have any relevance for society, and not only as a pearl for the delight of whiteness.



  1. Simon Gikandi, Slavery and the Culture of Taste, Nueva Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2011.

  2. Roger des Piles, Dissertation sur les ouvrages des plus fameux peintres, París, 1681, p. 59, apud Anne Lafont, L’art et la race. L’Africain (tout) contre l’œil des Lumières, París: Les Presses du Réel, 2019, p. 19.

  3. Frantz Fanon, Pele negra, máscaras brancas, Salvador: Editora da UFBA, 2008, p. 34.

  4. Jacqueline Lichtenstein, La couleur eloquente, París: Flammarion, 2013.

  5. Ibid., p. 41.

  6. La Bruyère, Les Caractères. Des Jugements, p. 57, 1696 (9ª ed.), apud Íbid., p. 39-40.

  7. Simon Gikandi, op. cit., p. 2, emphasis added.

  8. Citado en Madeleine Dobie, Trading Places. Colonization and Slavery in Eighteenth-Century French Culture, Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2010, p. 55.

  9. L. Snetlage, Novo dicionário francês contendo novas criações do povo francês, Göttingen, 1795. Citado en Jean Starobinski, As máscaras da civilização, São Paulo: Companhia das Letras, 2001, p. 12.

  10. Roger De Piles, Dissertation sur les ouvrages des plus fameux peintres. Dédiée à monseigneur le duc de Richelieu, París, 1681, p. 61-62, apud Anne Lafont, op. cit., p. 16.

  11. Frantz Fanon, Pele negra, máscaras brancas (Salvador: Editora da UFBA, 2008), p. 90.

  12. Such as Buffon’s Natural History (published between 1749 and 1804), specially, “Histoire naturelle de l’homme”, p. 429-557, available in gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/bpt6k1067226x.

  13. Aurélia Michel, Un monde en nègre et blanc. Enquête historique sur l’ordre racial, París: Seuil, 2020, p. 21.

  14. Lilia Moritz Schwarcz. “Lendo e agenciando imagens: o rei, a natureza e seus belos naturais”. Sociologia & Antropologia, vol. 4, oct. 2014, https://www.scielo.br/scielo.php?script=sci_arttext&pid=S2238-38752014000200391&lng=pt&tlng=pt.

  15. Immanuel Kant, Observações sobre o sentimento do belo e do sublime. Ensaio sobre as doenças mentais (Lisboa: Edições 70, 2012), p. 69, my own emphasis. However, there are recognized Black intellectuals in the West since the time of the philosopher, such as the poet Phillis Wheatley (c. 1753-1784) and the writer, composer, and actor Ignatius Sancho (c. 1729-1780), among others.

  16. Gloria Wekker, White Innocence. Paradoxes of Colonialism and Race (Durham/Londres: Duke University Press, 2016), p. 17


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