Here are two yellow fables:
In the first story, a man sits next to a pool of water. It gleams silver in the moonlight, and the surface is untroubled by leaves or raindrops. He can see his own reflection, and he admires the tender sweep of his brow. He looks for so long that he no longer wants food. Even though he sits near water, he feels no thirst. Eventually, his body, his beloved physicality, withers, and he dies. Where he once sat, a slender-stalked flower appears. The nymph, who had watched the man’s demise from the cover of the trees, names it for him. Every year, in that same spot, a narcissus opens its butter-yellow petals to reveal a diminutive golden trumpet, a floral echo of his lost beauty.
In the second story, an artist sits at his easel and feels the creeping dread of depression begin to fill each chamber of his mind. His world is made gray—he is sick with malaise, ill with apathy. To cure himself, he begins to eat his own paints. He spoons yellow into his mouth, turning his ivory teeth the color of lemons. He wants to ingest happiness, to shine from the inside. He falls ill. He drags himself to an asylum. There, enclosed in the walls of St. Paul, he begins to paint again.
Narcissus belongs to mythology, and Vincent van Gogh most likely didn’t eat his yellow paint. We know that he ate some questionable things (while he was committed at St. Paul, he wrote to a friend, “It appears that I pick up filthy things and eat them, although my memories of these bad moments are vague”), but there is no record of Van Gogh feasting on his favored chrome yellow. But it doesn’t really matter whether or not it’s true. The myth persists because it is so appealing; it’s been made into poetry and memes and been disseminated all over the Internet. (The Van Gogh Museum even has an FAQ that dispels this tale.) It makes a certain kind of sense that a chronically depressed artist—particularly one living in a place called “The Yellow House”—would attempt a bit of color-based ingestible magic. Who among us hasn’t wanted to swallow a ray of sunshine, to drink in joy like lemonade?
These myths tell us something about yellow—particularly that light buttery shade of early spring flowers. While darker yellows like mustard, goldenrod, and ochre can feel sophisticated, earthy, or even moody (those are the August yellows, the colors of hot and damp days), there is another type of pure yellow, one that gleams softly without a hint of brown. Known as jonquil, this light-yellow hue is the color of sunshine and vanity, madness and domestic bliss.
Jonquil is a word that first appeared in the English language in the early seventeenth century. It comes from the Latin joncus, meaning rush or reed. Originally, jonquil referred to a type of daffodil (species: narcissus) with small yellow flowers and narrow blade-shaped leaves. But in the late eighteenth century, the word began appearing as a color term, used to describe a specific (and very popular) shade of pale yellow. This color is found often in nature, and thus jonquil was used to name a variety of organic yellow things, from gemstones to flowers to birds. In 1791, The Edinburgh Magazine published an article titled “Buffon’s Natural History of the Canary-Bird” that described the “jonquil Canary-bird” in great detail. The colorful males, which have thicker heads and brighter yellow feathers, display their passion more ardently than their female counterparts. The female birds, the author notes, sing their “sign of consent, which does not escape her till she has long listened to and suffered herself to be won by the ardent prayer of the male, who exerts himself to inspire her with the same passion which he feels.” How very refreshing!
Like other color words that are also flower names (fuchsia, lilac, violet, and rose), it is difficult to separate jonquil the hue from jonquil the bloom. As a flower, jonquils are terrifically popular with writers. Narcissus appear in poetry more often than one might expect. William Wordsworth wrote about them, as did Robert Herrick, Edward Dorn, and Alicia Ostriker. They’re the official flower of the month of March, and they’re often associated with Easter. According to the language of flowers, jonquils symbolize returned affections, “domestic bliss,” and friendship. Jonquils are innocent flowers that hide their sex organs discreetly away from view. They’re also, like all narcissi, highly poisonous.
The color jonquil became wildly fashionable at the turn of the nineteenth century. According to a copy of The Lady’s Magazine from 1801, jonquil was the color of the season in Paris. (Other top colors included white, lilac, and rose.) Women wore pearls in their hair, flowers on diadems, and straw hats that were “jonquil, rose, or all white, with flat feathers to match.” For the first two decades of the nineteenth century, muted tones and pastel colors dominated the scene. Blues weren’t very popular during the Regency era, but lavender and gray were both embraced. This was also a period when strange color names proliferated; the literature of the time describes women wearing gowns in a variety of now unrecognizable hues, including esterhazy (silver gray), Isabella (ivory), Pomona (seafoam green), primrose (light yellow, even lighter than jonquil), coquelicot (poppy red), and puce (reddish mauve).
As is often the case, fashionable women began wearing these colors first and decorating their homes with them after. Soon, houses in Europe and America were decked out like miniature versions of the family room of the Grand Trianon Palace at Versailles. As the Victorian era wore on, scientific advances in the field of light and color began to influence popular culture. As the Impressionists played with the light in painting (using snow paintings as a way to show the changes from dawn’s buttery yellow to the deep indigo of a winter afternoon), upper-class consumers began dabbling in dressing for specific times of day. On her blog, the writer Mimi Matthews cites an 1870 book called Color in Dress that advises women to wear yellow (“the color of light”) during spring and early summer and to avoid wearing pale yellow in the evening as it becomes “muddy in appearance by gaslight.” Jonquil faded from view in the 1920s as flappers gained fashion supremacy; they favored more vivid and intense yellows, like chrome yellow or mustardy gamboge.
Although Pantone doesn’t have a jonquil in their catalogue of colors, they do have one shade that comes very close, and they’ve chosen to name it jojoba. In Pantone: The 20th Century in Color, jojoba shows up several times as a color of the Edwardian period, “when the English country house was the epitome of fine living” and again during the 1930s, when “subtle, smoky colors” were in vogue. The Great Depression had even the richest Americans on edge; when the political climate is that subdued, people tend to turn toward colors and designs that inspire nostalgia, and jonquil—I’m sorry, jojoba—was a color that seemed calming, classic, and warm.
In the face of crisis, people seek solace at home, turning toward rustic ceramics and cozy textiles. In the 1920s, Americans glutted themselves on glitter, glitz, and metallics. The thirties saw a return to homespun materials and cottage-style decor. Roseville Pottery, founded in 1890 in Ohio, had their heyday in the thirties. The brand was available at boutiques and department stores across the country, and thanks to the accessible price point, Roseville vases, pots, and urns soon became ubiquitous on mantels and windowsills. The company introduced several lines, the most popular of which were inspired by nature. There was Wisteria, which, according to Pantone, had a “successful, earthy combination of purple, green, and warm neutrals,” and Pinecone, which used eau-de-Nil, forest-green, and light-yellow glazes. Across the pond, the English potter Clarice Cliff was making a splash, and her designs featured a similarly soft color palette. In 1930, she was appointed art director at Newport Pottery, where she created her Jonquil line, which featured abstracted blossoms on a light-yellow background. (Christie’s sold a nice Clarice Cliff coffee set recently for £875, and there’s a honeypot on sale at eBay for £275 if you want to own a piece of jonquil history.)
During the latter half of the twentieth century, pale yellow fell out of fashion. There was a brief period in the sixties when buttery yellow fluttered back in—few have worn yellow better than Mia Farrow in Rosemary’s Baby—but it never really took off. The seventies had their harvest gold, and the nineties had their bright, neon, smiley-face yellow, but pastel yellow remained a relic of the past. Yet in 2018, it feels like something is slowly shifting. Pastels are having a big moment; backstage at her spring/summer 2018 show, Victoria Beckham told British Vogue that she’s currently craving “ice cream colors.” “It’s not too sweet or saccharine,” she said. “Delicacy can be strong.” Eau de Nil is back, and Gen Z yellow (a brighter tone than jonquil yet undeniably joyful) has taken over my Instagram feed. Like millennial pink, which describes rose gold, baby pink, and salmon, Gen Z yellow seems to refer to a group of shades. The writer Haley Nahman explains that Gen Z yellow can encompass anything from “buttercream to melted butter and beyond.” A Vogue roundup of the trend includes lemon yellow, pineapple yellow, mustard, and (bafflingly) a rather bland shade of beige.
So will nineteenth-century jonquil bloom again in 2018? We’re experiencing a strange moment in history when everyone, from my parents to my middle-school students, wants to talk about American values and American principles. It’s a time of endless rumination and nonstop anxiety. Pastels feel like a sweet hygge homecoming—a way to feel joy without resorting to eating your paints. I’m not usually a big fan of yellow—I’ve read “The Yellow Wallpaper” a few too many times—but I am easily swayed by repeated exposure. After a few months of resistance, I’m beginning to open to jonquil. It’s cheery and light. Like mules and kitten heels, two vintage styles that have burst forth from our history books and onto our feet, jonquil feels like the next big thing in yesterday’s fashion.
Katy Kelleher is a writer who lives in the woods of rural New England. She is the author of Handcrafted Maine.