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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.”

rembrandt-van-rijn-a-bearded-old-man-wearing-a-brown-coat-and-russet-hat-1651_a-G-12132519-4985774

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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Puce flea on pale puce background

Puce flea on pale puce background

There is a lot of misunderstanding about the color puce.  The American definition is a middle tone brownish purple-pink, however, in France, where the name originated, puce describes a much darker and sterner red-brown.  Other fashion sources occasionally also use the word puce to describe a murky shade of green horror created by mixing orange and blue (although I personally regard such a concept as misguided on many levels).

A Puce Sari

A Puce Sari

The dreadful sounding name has an equally vile origin.  The French word for a flea is “une puce”.  Puce was the term used for the brownish red dried blood stains left on sheets or clothing when a person was badly bitten by fleas:  so puce has its origin in bloodstains.  I suppose we are lucky it isn’t called “crime scene” or “parasite”.  Despite the confusion regarding the nature of the color, it has had periods of real popularity.  Marie Antoinette”s favorite color was said to be puce (although I can’t find any portraits of her wearing it).  The color seems to be favored by the great and powerful–it is also the boss’ favorite color in Dilbert.

French puce suede oxfords (from "Pointer" if you must have them)

French puce suede oxfords (from “Pointer” if you must have them)

The Fulvous Whistling Duck (Dendrocygna bicolor) photo by Bob Hall

Fulvous is a color which is very prevalent in the natural world.  It is a dull mixture of yellow and brown with hints of red.   The name comes from the Latin word “fulvus” which translates as “a dull yellow-brown color with a hint of red” (sometimes etymology is easy).  Since “fulvus” is a Latin word there are a shocking number of animal species which have the color incorporated in their binomial scientific name.   There are also quite a few creatures (particularly birds) known as the fulvous such-and-such in English.  Here is a little gallery of fulvous/fulvus beasties.

Cryptocephalus (Burlinius) fulvus, photographed by Josef Dvořák

 

Pacific Golden Plover (Pluvialis fulva)

 

The common brown lemur (Eulemur fulvus) photo by Emmanuel Van Heygen

 

The Fulvus Roundleaf Bat (Hipposideros fulvus) painting by Gray, 1838

 

The Fulvous Owl (Strix fulvescens)

 

The Fulvous Forest Skimmer (Neurothemis fulvia)

 

Fulvous-breasted Woodpecker (Dendrocopos macei)

 

The tawny grisette (Amanita fulva)

 

The Fulvous Limpet (Iothia fulva)

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