I recently finished reading The Secret Lives of Color, by Kassia St. Clair, a lovely little book of stories, published in 2017, about hues familiar and strange. In the latter category is Isabelline (sometimes called Isabella), said to be the color of the Spanish Infanta Isabella’s white linen underwear after it had been yellowed by age and wear (and – how to put it – bodily excretions); and minium, a bright orange-red used in the Middle Ages. (St. Clair doesn’t say how it got its name: It comes from the Minius River on the Spanish-Portuguese border, now known as Miño or Minho.) I’d known that puce, a brownish purple, means “flea” in French, but I hadn’t known that gamboge, a word describing a shade of yellow-orange, comes from “Cambodia” – formerly “Camboja” – where the pigment was extracted from the sap of Garcinia trees.
To me, the most interesting color stories in the book are about non-colors: shades that don’t appear in the rainbow or on color wheels. Take the browns: “That there is no bright or luminous brown led to its being despised by both medieval artists and modernists,” writes St. Clair, which may be why I find the browns so endearing. Also, their names tell wonderful tales.