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The Anatomy of Color

History can be refracted through countless prisms—cultural, economic, environmental, ideological, moral, national, racial, religious—but one has been oddly unexplored, despite being not just obvious but ubiquitous.  That prism is color, an element that suffuses every instinct and thought, hues our whole universe.  Since hominids evolved opsin genes, we have been able to distinguish between colors and assign them significances.  Over aeons, and increasingly as Homo became sapiens sapiens, we have used this rare ability to paint our world in affirmatory or menacing shades, define deities, read countries and skies, rank friends and foes, inform others about ourselves.  By the time the artists of Lascaux were depicting their sable elks, umber aurochs, and charcoal wisent 17,000 years ago, ur-Europe had complex hierarchies and mythologies of color ingrained into everyday life.  Even now, when we know something of anthropology, cultural transmission, evolution, genetics, light, optics, and anomalies like synesthesia, colors carry inescapable, almost instinctive associations.

Kassia St. Clair “fell in love with colours” while writing about 18th-century fashions, and parlayed chromophilia into a column for Elle Decoration; so this book.  These may sound like slender credentials, but she has mined carefully and mixed well, foraying into art history, art theory,...

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