This section is from the book "Chromatography; Or, A Treatise On Colours And Pigments, And Of Their Powers In Painting", by George Field. Also available from Amazon: Chromatography, or A Treatise on Colours and Pigments, and of Their Powers in Painting.
Morally, white is expressive of modesty and sweetness, and contributes to these expressions in other colours, when mixed therewith, by subduing their force; it is hence the pleasing expression of paleness and pureness of colour arises; - and in its general effect, as a colour on the eye and the mind, white is enlivening and elating, without gaiety, according to the neutrality of its relations; inspiring confidence or hope, as black or darkness does fear and distrust. It has ever been the vesture of priesthood, and, in its sensible and moral expression, it is the natural garb and emblem of purity, delicacy, cheerfulness, innocency, timidity, gentleness, dignity, piety, peace, and all the modest virtues: hence the white flag is the token of peace; the white feather the metaphor of timidity: the white shield was the mark of untried manhood; and the white vestments of the vestal, the priest, and the Pythagoreans were symbols of purity and peace. And it heightens these sentiments in pictorial representations, and lends its powers to language metaphorically; hence the poet also employs it ideally and rhetorically for all this variety of expression in the construction of epithets and the clothing of figures and symbols; and this he does likewise with all colours in the manner, reference, and relation, and with the same feeling as the painter.
Spenser, who was a great poetical colourist, gives this moral colouring to his figures; thus his Humbleness, as Humilla,
" Was an aged sire all hoary gray"
Faerie Queen, Cant. x. 5.
" Right cleanly clad in comely sad attire."
C. x. 7. His Faith, as Fidelia,
"She was arrayed all in lily white."
C, x. 13.
His Hope, as Speranza,
" Was clad in blue that her beseemed well."
C. x. 14.
His Charity, as Charissa,
"Was all in yellow rubes arrayed."
C. x. 30.
"Clad in scarlet-red P'urfled with gold and pearl of rich assay."
C. xi. 13.
"In a long purple pall, whose skirt with gold Was fretted all about, she was arrayed."
C. is. 37.
"------The nurse of sin
Arrayed in habit black and amice thin."
C. iv. 18.
And many others. Indeed there is hardly a virtue, vice, or quality, which Spenser has not figured and decorated with generally appropriate and expressive colours in his "Faerie Queen."
Mythologically, the antient poets and painters truly represent Hesperus, or evening, as of double investure with relation to light and shade: as Lucifer and Phosphorus, they give him a white horse; and as Hesperus, a black one; - and the Roman poets represent their goddess Pietas, or devotion, as dressed in pure white. Nevertheless colours symbolize more truly and expressively when employed according to their relations naturally than according to the conventions of the poets, the most eminent of whom have, however, adopted their usage from nature.
Of white, as employed by the poets, the following may serve as examples of epithets, - "White-Tobed truth."
Milton. "Wlite-Tobed innocence."
Pops. " The saintly veil of maiden white."
" O welcome pure-eyed Faith, white-handed Hope, Thou hovering angel, girt with golden wings, And thou utiblemish'd form of Chastity! "
In the latter example, white is naturally and beautifully associated with yellow. White appears to be almost as principal in the colouring of the poet as of the painter, and volumes might be filled with instances of its use, but the following may suffice: -
" White as the sunshine stream thro' vernal clouds."
"White as thy fame, anil as thy honour clear."
"Cytherea, How bravely thou becom'st thy bed! Fresh lily! And whiter than the sheets."
Shakspere: Cymbelint, Act ii. Sc. 2.
In the following, white is symbolical of pure-ness, innocence, chastity, candour, peace, friendship, and virtue in general.
"The snowy wings of Innocence and Love."
" Let hoary Judgment, sober guest, Bring Candour in her lilted vest."
" She first, white Peace, the earth with plowshares broke, And bent the oxen to the crooked yoke."
Addison, after Tibullus.
"You may find, too, the colour of the drapery that she [Friendship] wore in the old Roman paintings, from that verse in Horace, -
' Te Spes, et albo rara Fides colil Velata panno.' - Od. 35, Lib. i."
Idem:On Antient Medals, Dial. i. p. 43.
"Now, by my maiden honour, yet an pure As the unsullied lily, I protest."
The following afford examples of white in accordance with red, of which relation we have already spoken, and shall have occasion to mention hereafter: -
"Upon those lips, the sweet fresh buds of youth, The holy dew of prayer lies like a pearl Dropp'd from the opening eye-lids of the morn Upon the bashful rose." Middleton.
" What if this cursed hand Were thicker than itself with brother's blood? Is there not rain enough in the sweet heavens To wash it while as snow?"
Hamlet, Act iii. Sc. 3.
" To thee, sweet smiling maid, I bring The beauteous progeny of spring; In every breathing bloom I find Some pleasing emblem of thy mind. The blushes of that op'ning rose Thy tender modesty disclose.
The snow-white lilies of the vale, Diffusing fragrance to the gale,
No oatentations tints assume, Vain of their exquisite perfume; Careless, and sweet, and mild, we see In them a lovely type of thee."
Richardson: Russian Anecdotes.
" Yet I'll not shed her blood; Nor scar that whiter skin of hers than snow, And smooth as monumental alabaster."
Othello, Act v. Sc. 2.
In the following, white is contrasted with black:
"Whiter than new snow on a raven's back."
Romeo and Juliet, Act iii. Sc. 2.
" The Moon, Rising in clouded majesty, at length Apparent queen unveil'd her peerless light. And o'er the dark her silver mantle threw."
The Greeks obey; where yet the embers glow, Wide o'er the pile the sable wine they throw. Next the white bones his sad companions place. With tears collected, in a golden vase."
Pope: Homer's R. B. xxiii.
"Dark-wounding Calumny The whitest virtue strikes." Shakspere.
"Thou tremblest, and the whiteness on thy cheek Is apter than thy tongue to tell thy errand. E'en such a man, so faint, so spiritless, So dull, so dead in look, so woe-begone. Drew Priam's curtain in the dead of night"
In the latter of these passages white gives contrast or character to every thought, and heightens the whole sentiment; while in that which precedes it, it is rendered more vivid by immediate contrast. To conclude: -
"White, when it shines with unstain'd lustre clear, May bear an object back or bring it near. Aided by black, it to the front aspires; That aid withdrawn, it distantly retires: But black unmix'd, of darkest midnight hue, Still calls each object nearer to the view."
Innumerable examples might be adduced of this poetical employment of colours, yet we have given more than may appear warrantable to the fastidious, because we believe, independent of the pleasure they may afford, the perusal of them will help to imbue the mind with just references and the right appliances of colours.
White, as a pigment, is of more extensive use than any other colour in oil painting and fresco, owing to its local property, its representing light, and its entering into composition with all colours in forming tints: hence every artist is sensible of the importance of good pigments of this denomination; and Titian is said to have grieved, in one of his epistles, the death of the chemist who prepared his white, with the pathetic lamentation of a lover, so well convinced was he that upon the pureness and perfection of his white depended the extent of his scale of colouring, the power of his lights and the truth of his tints. The old masters are supposed to have possessed whites superior to our own; nevertheless we question this as a general fact, attributing the pureness of the local whites of some celebrated old pictures to faithful preparation, a proper mode of using, careful preservation of the work, and, in many instances, to the introduction of ultramarine, or a permanent cold colour into the white - such as is plumbago - helped also frequently by judicious contrast.
Notwithstanding white pigments are an exceedingly numerous class, an unexceptionable white is still a desideratum. The white earths are destitute of body in oil and varnish, and metallic whites of the best body are not permanent in water; yet when properly discriminated, we have eligible whites for most purposes, of which the following are the principal: -