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The_Peasant_and_the_Birdnester_Pieter_Bruegel_the_Elder_1568+from+wikimedia

The Peasant and the Birdnester (Pieter Bruegel the Elder, 1568) oil on panel

Ferrebeekeeper has blogged a great deal about fancy modern colors like follyMountbatten pink, mauve, and greenery.  The names and high-falutin’ synthetic chemistry underlying the pigmentation of these faddish vogue colors really is quite recent (in the grand scheme of things I mean).  Today though, to celebrate autumn, we have a very beautiful color which has an ancient name (which goes back to at least Middle English).  According to color theorists, russet is a tertiary color–the result of combining purple and orange.  What this means in practice is that russet is a medium dark reddish-brown which looks like the floor of a forest or the unswept corners of a poultry yard. We know the word was around at least in 1363, because an English statute of that year required poor people to wear russet (although it may have been referring to a coarse woolen cloth dyed with woad and madder which, for a time was synonymous with the color).

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Despite its associations with the hempen homespun smallfolk (or perhaps because of it), russet has an astonishing literary history.  The first scene of the first act of Hamlet ends when “the morn, in russet mantle clad, walks o’er the dew of yon high eastward hill.”  Russet, being a somber earthen color, was associated with autumn, death, and mourning (which is perhaps why we find it in the haunted scene in Hamlet).  Cromwell also referred to the color when he preferred a disciplined and seasoned captain in russet (e.g. a commoner with a commission) to a noble soldier “which you call a gentleman and is nothing else.”

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A Bearded Old Man, Wearing a Brown Coat and Russet Hat(Rembrandt van Rijn, 1651) Oil on Canvas

There is also an artistic truth behind the color which is painful for the excitable young artist to grasp.  Drawings made in medium and dark browns have a way of coming out far more beautifully than drawings made with brighter and more fashionable colors.   When I was young I kept making drawings with violet or blood red.  Why didn’t I listen to Shakespeare and Cromwell and use russet.  Courtiers of the 14th century may have sneered at it (and brown is perhaps still not the most chic color on the catwalk) but it is beautiful and it suits living things very well…which is good, for here in the temperate northern world we are about to embark upon an entire season of russet.

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