Something odd happened to me in late 2017: I became enamored with the color orange.
That fall, I’d met someone, and orange was appearing everywhere, like some kind of hallucinatory sign. It sped by on the side of a truck, flowers in the park, the color of his surfboard. It appeared in past purchases: an orange skirt I bought in the spring, imagining it billowing in the wind, a tangerine wristlet made of pebbled leather. It appeared in poems I wanted to read aloud: Frank O’Hara’s lover in an orange shirt; Ada Limón’s ripening persimmons. I wanted to know what it meant, that I was seeing this color as if for the first time, and why it was suddenly all around me.
When I was in high school, in spring—sun out, the world thawing—my friends and I would walk from our campus down to the wetlands, a startling bit of wilderness in the middle of Beaverton, Oregon. There was a pond, and a dock that led out onto it, where you could sit in skinny jeans and kick your legs out over the water. On bright and windless days, the landscape on the other side of the pond was reflected in its surface as perfectly as in a mirror. I loved to sit on the dock and look at the trees dancing on the water, their colored foliage, their leaves precisely outlined against the sky. There was something about the tree line that felt particularly painterly—like something out of an American natural-history landscape, red alder and Oregon ash and western red cedar all lined up in a row.
It’s this feeling I return to when I consider the natural world—that awe at its specificity, its many names. It took me a long time to realize that all things are visible, even if my human eyes can’t see them: shingles on a roof, eyelashes on a mouse, leaves on a tree. Naming things is a means of recognizing them, and I’m drawn to flower guides and botanical illustrations the way a bookish child is drawn to a dictionary. I wanted to apply this same kind of naming to the color orange, to understand why it was all around me.
Any color historian will tell you that orange didn’t have a name in English before Europeans encountered the fruit. Previously, the color family we call orange—or sometimes carrot, or goldenrod, or mango—was known in Old English as geoluhread, or, as we’d translate it now, yellow-red. Katy Kelleher, writing for The Paris Review, notes that orange was late to be added to the canon of colors: “There is something about every shade of orange that feels secondary.” Medieval Europeans recognized the existence of the color, and it appears in paintings and illuminated manuscripts, though for hundreds of years the only pure orange pigments available were realgar and orpiment, two arsenic-based compounds that were highly toxic. Orpiment, because of its brilliant hue, was highly sought after by alchemists, who thought it might be a means of making gold. It was only when Portuguese traders brought sweet orange trees from Asia to Europe in the fifteenth century that the object gave the hue a name. From laranja in Portuguese, naranja in Spanish, and the original naranga in Sanskrit, we get the English orange, which has no equivalent or rhyme.
But sweet oranges existed in China long before they were crated up and sent away on Portuguese ships. An early depiction of the citrus fruit is Zhao Lingrang’s Yellow Oranges and Green Tangerines, ca. 1070–1100, a Chinese fan painting repurposed as an album leaf illustration, to be paired with a poem. In the silk painting, two groves of fruiting trees are planted on either side of a river, their leaves defined with careful strokes. There’s not much color in Song Dynasty painting, and this depiction of oranges focuses less on their color than on the overall shape of the trees, speckled with fruit. The corresponding poem, by Su Shi, reads, in translation:
You must remember,
the best scenery of the year,
Is exactly now,
when oranges turn yellow and tangerines green.
The foreshortening of one of the groves creates a sense of distance in the small painting. In the top third of the fan, the horizon fades into the distance, along with the trees, creating a sense of space while maintaining the appearance of plenty. A small bird, its body a shock of white, perches on the western shore, while another—painted with just a few strokes—soars above the horizon. Like the poem, its transit crystallizes a fleeting instant in time: “exactly now, / when oranges turn yellow and tangerines green.”
Simply composed, intimate still lifes were also popular during the Song Dynasty, though many painters chose to render flowers, like plum blossoms or cherry blossoms, alongside native birds, in a genre known as bird-and-flower painting. Though early Chinese paintings of oranges aren’t unheard of, they’re far outnumbered by more traditional subjects—lychees and persimmons, magnolias and chrysanthemums—and I was surprised to encounter this small fan painting by Lin Chun in the National Palace Museum’s database. The oranges and tangerines (or “oranges and green oranges,” according to a different translation) are rendered with an enormous amount of detail, reminiscent of botanical illustration. As in Zhao Lingrang’s fan, it’s not the specific, iconic color of the oranges that lets us know what fruit is shown, but other details, depicted with fidelity: the specific shape of the leaves; the rumpling, navel-like bottom of the citrus; the bumpy skin rendered with tiny dots. The oranges are larger, their color lighter, than the small, smooth green tangerines. I love this fan painting’s elegant framing, its delicacy and attention to nature’s details. It feels like a true attempt to capture the world as it is.
Nearly two centuries after the end of the Song Dynasty, oranges made their way to Europe, where they occupy a tiny detail of the Arnolfini Portrait, by Dutch old master Jan van Eyck. To my knowledge, it’s one of the earliest Western depictions of oranges in visual art. Half-hidden by the heavy robe of Arnolfini, a merchant, three oranges rest on the flat surface of a table. Another orange is placed on the windowsill: its face, turned stem-out, catches the cool gray light. This early in the fifteenth century, oranges would have been expensive, a rare import that Arnolfini himself might have traded. The fruits serve as an allusion to wealth, casually placed, their vivid color a beacon for their symbolism. The orange in the window entrances me, how its mottled surface seems made to catch the light: it seems a precursor to the still lifes arranged by Gaugin, or Cézanne, or Manet.
How must it have felt to see an orange for the first time—did they peel them open with their hands, feeling the spray of citrus oil on their palms? Or did they use a knife, cutting past the white pith? How did it feel to taste the tang of citrus, to let the segments explode—new, beguiling—in one’s mouth? It’s in this moment that the color orange was given a name in the only language I speak.
Throughout the Dutch Golden Age, oranges, still a rarity, maintained an exotic symbolism. In Willem Kalf’s dramatically lit still life from 1663, a huge, single orange perches in a bowl, which threatens to tilt out of the frame. The piled, precarious imported riches—the Persian rug, the gleaming metal, the foreign fruits—operate both as braggadocio and, from my vantage point in the twenty-first century, perhaps as a sharp, anti-imperial critique.
Two hundred years later, oranges, now common in Europe, lost their symbolic gravitas. The 1800s coincided with the arrival of a new synthetic orange pigment, “chrome orange,” made from the mineral crocoite. The advent of chrome orange allowed painters to use the color more widely. It was crucial to the Impressionists, who loved the brilliant shade. Consider Van Gogh’s heady landscapes or Monet’s sunsets over shimmering water—the heat of the sun alive in the reverberating contrast between orange and blue. Loosed from the toxic pigment and expensive fruit, orange’s presence in a painting became more about mood.
The formal pleasures of an orange are never more obvious than in Édouard Manet’s Four Mandarin Oranges, a still life from 1882, painted late in his career. I recently encountered this painting at the Art Institute of Chicago, in a show of Manet’s later works, on view through September 8. Painted atop a background of thinned umber, four oranges rest on a white surface, skin gleaming. Even over a hundred years later, Manet’s brushwork looks as fresh as the day he painted it—quick, buttery strokes, painted wet-in-wet, and highlighted with gleams of bright white. The vivid, distinct shades of orange—I count at least four, as I imagine Manet’s splotches on a palette—aren’t blended together, but retain their unique texture, creating a mottled effect. Manet’s still lifes are a perfect model for a particular school of “painterly” painting—a brushstroke that moves with such life, such joy, that its subject seems dewy and alive.
Mandarin oranges appear frequently in Manet’s late work, but it’s this painting that aligns most closely to how orange makes me feel—a zip of joy in all life’s gray. Manet, in his later years, was said to hand out mandarin oranges on the street. I wonder how he peeled them—if he, like me, went from the stem outward, sliding thumb under in a tight, careful spiral. If he, like me, left the peels to dry, long and velvet and still slightly fragrant, and if the next day he might have forgotten about them.
When I was in my freshman year of college, I spent a lot of time in the university art gallery, plodding back and forth between vitrines, penning comparison papers. No matter where my homework situated me for the afternoon’s visit, I always made time before closing to stop by my favorite Rothko, which was always on display. It’s one of the abstract paintings he’s best known for, examining the interactions of color: a pure orange panel with a layer of a lighter hue scumbled on top, a rich panel of red paint on the bottom, veiled in lavender purple. A bar of yellow paint, streaked horizontally across the surface, pulls the surface of the painting forward. At certain times of day, and in certain moods, it appears to glow.
I loved sitting under that Rothko on a bad day, or any day. A nice thing about Abstract Expressionism—and a dangerous one, too—is that it can come to feel like a blank slate, a means of art-making that elides explicit meaning in favor of emotional response. Rothko’s paintings are universal, the way every language has a word for color. I was lonely and far from home in my first year in Connecticut, and Rothko’s orange painting was an easy painting to love. An easy painting to feel close to.
But its ease is the beauty of it, too, that it can take on our emotions the way it took on mine. I don’t think Rothko’s painting could have existed if orange hadn’t had a name. It wouldn’t have been possible to have this painting without the word, without the history, which is inextricably wrapped up in its eponym, that sweet, alchemical fruit.
In 1992, in Provincetown, Massachusetts, the artist Zoe Leonard saved two oranges she had eaten, letting the rinds dry. Later, she curled the peel back in on itself, suturing the dry fruit back together with a needle and thread. For the next five years, Leonard continued this ritual with all kinds of fruit she had eaten—bananas, grapefruits, lemons and avocados and oranges, stitching them back together with wire and thread, adding hook and eye closures and buttons and zippers. Strange Fruit, Leonard’s title for the project, named after the Billie Holiday song, is an elegy for her friend, the artist David Wojnarowicz, as well as a meditation on time and mortality. Left unpreserved, the fruit slowly decays in the gallery space. Leonard’s efforts to make the skins whole again—through stitches and sutures, buttons and closures—reveal the way an artist transforms an object into something new. In mourning for Wojnarowicz, and for all those lost to AIDS, Leonard found in the project of creating Strange Fruit a way to heal: to sew herself back together.
In some of the pieces, the fruit’s empty skin is totally obscured, wrapped in brilliantly colored thread; in others, the fruit is crisscrossed at the seams, whipstitched like a baseball. On the floor in a gallery space, they wither and decay, a testament to excruciating, tender care—the unnecessary, even futile repair, made necessary through grief and love and healing. Leonard’s piece isn’t about the color anymore, not its abstract powers or its moods or pigments. Instead, she returns to the fruit itself, to the object passed between hands, across continents, across centuries, peeled and segmented and placed into palms.
Orange isn’t a color ordinarily associated with romance. That dubious, cloying honor goes to reds and pinks—think long stems, no thorns, velvety petals on silky sheets. No, orange is the color of surprise and warning: a hazard sign, a smoggy sunset, a field of California poppies waving their heavy heads on the beach. Our eyes are sensitive to it, pulled to it even on the periphery, and for me its constant presence was affirmation. I raced into the world on the heels of love, my vision laced with orange.
That love stayed, and it changed, and it changed, and it changes still. My vocabulary has grown to include other colors and other languages. But orange’s pop and fizz and alarming brightness still sparks in me—a reminder of how it feels to begin. It feels like joy, like the kick of a starting gun, like a banner flapping in the breeze.
Larissa Pham is a writer in Brooklyn.