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Harlequin (as an antique French paper doll)

Harlequin (as an antique French paper doll)

Here at Ferrebeekeeper we try and try to explain things coherently, but, alas, some things just refuse to be contained into coherent categories. One of those things appropriately is “harlequin” a word which has come to mean all sorts of contradictory things—particularly when it is used to describe color.

A Scene from the Commedia dell'Arte with Harlequin and Punchinello (Nicolas Lancret, 1734, oil on canvas)

A Scene from the Commedia dell’Arte with Harlequin and Punchinello (Nicolas Lancret, 1734, oil on canvas)

Harlequin was a main character from the Italian Commedia dell arte, a form of masked farcical theater popular from the 16th through the 18th century. Commedia dell arte emphasized certain humorous stock characters (like the stingy master, the coquettish daughter, the cowardly suitor, and so forth). Harlequin was one of the most cunning and ingenious masked servants–a character so crafty that he frequently outsmarted himself. The character evolved directly from the cunning devil character of medieval pageant plays (with a bit of the king’s fool thrown in). Just as the harlequin predated Italian farcical comedy, he (and she) outlasted the form and became an integral part of circuses, burlesque shows, advertising, cartoons, and so forth, right up until the present.

Pinup Harlequin

Pinup Harlequin

Aside from their puckish wit and masks, harlequins were famed for their mottled garb of many colored diamonds or triangles. These spangled parti-colored outfits were one of the crowning glories of Commedia dell arte, and the look quickly became a part of show culture throughout the western world. Many artists, poets, and marketers were inspired by the bold & brassy look of harlequins and the word became used to describe colors and patterns.

Harlequin (yellow-green)

Harlequin (yellow-green)

Frustratingly, the word is used by different sources to describe completely different colors and patterns. Among the classically minded it still describes a triangular or diamond pattern of many different colors. To the British, from the nineteen-twenties onward, “harlequin has been the name for a bright shade of yellow-green (inclining towards green).

Harlequin car (it's a hard effect to photograph)

Harlequin car (it’s a hard effect to photograph)

To make matters even worse, in the early 21st century, paint manufacturers created a metallic paint which changes color depending on the viewing angle. This unearthly effect is accomplished by the reflection/refraction of light upon tiny aluminum chips coated with magnesium fluoride (all embedded within chromium). Naturally one of the marketing names the paint makers chose for their product was “harlequin”.

Royal Doulton Harlequin rack plate After an original work by LeRoy Neiman

Royal Doulton Harlequin rack plate
After an original work by LeRoy Neiman

Harlequin is even used to describe a garish mélange of many crazy colors with virtually no discernible pattern!  So if you are reading a contemporary work and a color is described as “harlequin” you will have to work out for yourself what it means. The whole mess makes me feel like I have been tricked by a masked fraudster from Baroque Italy. Quite possibly we all have been.

default-ehow-images-a05-4j-6b-did-harlequin-come-800x800Postscript:  As a special bonus, I am also mentioning harrlequin colored Great Danes (as suggested by bmellor2013 in her comment below.  Apparently the pattern (or at least the name for it) is unique to certain Great Danes.  Wikipedia defines the Harlequin coat as follows:

The base color is pure white with black torn patches irregularly and well distributed over the entire body; a pure white neck is preferred. The black patches should never be large enough to give the appearance of a blanket, nor so small as to give a stippled or dappled effect. Eligible, but less desirable, are a few small grey patches (this grey is consistent with a Merle marking) or a white base with single black hairs showing through, which tend to give a salt and pepper or dirty effect.

Wow! Dog coats are serious business–especially for the Great Dane, the princely “Apollo of Dogs”.  Here is a harlequin Dane relaxing with his human companion.

Harlequin Great Dane

Harlequin Great Dane

Paphiopedilum King's Forest 'Kate's Peridot' (Photo by Ken Jacobsen)

Pigments, hues, colors!  The way light bounces off objects and shines into our primate brains is rife with emotional and moral meaning.  Each color has historical dimensions and conveys allusions to different times and places. Colors evoke feelings and thoughts in a way that almost nothing else can.

In continuing celebration of Holi, the festival of colors, I’m writing about some of my favorite colors starting today with chartreuse.  Half way between green and yellow, chartreuse plays tricks on the brain–sometimes looking like one or the other. It is a quintessential color of spring, appearing in the first buds of willow and the tip of the crocus as it pokes up from the ground.  However a summer field glowing in the sunlight is also chartreuse as are aspen leaves when they begin to change in fall.

Weeping Willow in Spring

The historical roots of the word are as colorful as it is. Chartreuse is named after a delightful herbal liquor made by Carthusian Monks.  Wikipedia tells the story as follows:

According to tradition, a marshal of artillery to French king Henry IV, François Hannibal d’Estrées, presented the Carthusian monks at Vauvert, near Paris, with an alchemical manuscript that contained a recipe for an “elixir of long life” in 1605. The recipe eventually reached the religious order’s headquarters at the Grande Chartreuse monastery, in Voiron, near Grenoble. It has since then been used to produce the “Elixir Végétal de la Grande Chartreuse”. The formula is said to call for 130 herbs, flowers, and secret ingredients combined in a wine alcohol base. The monks intended their liqueur to be used as medicine. The recipe was further enhanced in 1737 by Brother Gérome Maubec.

Just why the artillery marshal had a magical longevity elixir is unclear. Twice the monks have been evicted from their monasteries and deprived of their properties (in 1793 because of the revolution and in 1903, thanks to an anti-monastic law).  But even in exile, they kept the secret recipe and they have always come back to distilling stronger than ever.  Because it is so well known around the world, their delightful (and extremely alcoholic) concoction has loaned its pretty name to the lovely color.

Perhaps it is appropriate that chartreuse bears the name of a spirit.  Despite the fact that it is a color frequently seen in the natural world there is also something otherworldly about it.  Think of how many ghosts, aliens, and mystery substances are colored a crazy yellow-green and you will immediately see what I mean.

Beings beyond human comprehension....

You can probably tell that Chartreuse and similar yellow greens are among my favorite colors.  Nothing combines the feeling of vibrant, thriving life with a hint of mystery and ineffability like chartreuse.  That’s enough writing I am going to go out and revel in a world of golden-green shoots!

The Garden of Earthly Delights (Hieronymus Bosch, ca 1510)

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