Colour sometimes creeps into culture in curious ways. This article looks at the long-lived use of colour to code gender, a distinction reflected in eighteenth-century cosmetics, and in paintings of some eras since the ancient Egyptians.
Although it’s not commonly seen in paintings from ancient Egypt, when it does occur, it’s striking how some artists used colour-coding to distinguish between men and women, and sometimes in more elaborate conventions.
This fresco dating from about 2200-2033 BCE, now in the Louvre, shows Iri receiving an offering. Its three figures are painted with two distinct skin colours, the woman at the left in a pale flesh, and the two men in the same red ochre widely seen in other paintings.
In this fresco of a funeral procession from the tomb of Ramose, dating from about 1353–1336 BCE, there’s a similar distinction in skin colour between the central group of women, and the men on the left and right.
By the time of the Book of the Dead of Ani in about 1300 BCE, skin and garment colours and tones appear to form a more elaborate system, in which some women at least are still depicted with almost ghostly pale skin, while most men are much darker.
Similar differences appear in some of the mysterious tomb paintings of the Etruscans, here dating from about 340 BCE in the François Tomb at Vulci. The two gods shown here are both fair-skinned, and that to the right of centre holding the mallet is quite blue too, compared with the Etruscans, who are as red as ancient Egyptian men.
Similar colour-coding is seen in some paintings before Renaissance realism supervened.
This detail from Giotto’s fresco of The Last Judgment in the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua, Italy, was painted in 1306. It follows a slightly different early convention with humanoid demons being colour-coded blue, and some in brown, and its densely packed naked victims are shown in a pale flesh colour, regardless of their gender.
Hans Baldung, a contemporary of Hieronymus Bosch, made several paintings of this scene of Death and the Maiden. The young and beautiful woman is almost white in comparison to the sickly yellow of the figure of Death beside her, and that of a man in the left background.
This can be most apparent in paintings of Adam and Eve, here that made by Maerten van Heemskerck in about 1550.
The quest for ever more real painting in the Renaissance seems to have put an end to this convention, at least until artists of the nineteenth century started quoting old styles for effect.
In Jean-Léon Gérôme’s painting of the great Greek courtesan Phryne before the Areopagus from 1861, her skin is as white as alabaster, in stark contrast to the scarlet robes and darker skin of the men all around her. While her skin pallor may also symbolise her apparent ‘innocence’, if that’s conceivable for a courtesan, I suspect that Gérôme was also aware of this ancient convention.
Franz von Stuck was another artist who paid attention to details of the classics, and on more than one occasion used this colour-coding convention. In his painterly The Game (Faun and Nymph) from about 1904, a pale-skinned nymph is escaping the clutches of a darker-coloured faun; she pushes his head away from her, as she breaks free, presumably to don the clothing she is carrying.
Lawrence Alma-Tadema, who like Gérôme and von Stuck researched his motifs thoroughly, follows the convention in his painting of The Finding of Moses (1904-05). With the exception of the infant Moses, in his crib, every woman in this painting has pale whitish skin, and every man is significantly darker, although there are no indications that these are intended to be Black Africans.
Perhaps it’s only appropriate that we have returned to the Egyptians, who more than most ancient peoples must have been accustomed to seeing a wide range of natural skin colours, ranging from the pallor of northern Europeans to Nubians from higher up the River Nile. Little did they realise how their colour-coding might have persuaded eighteenth century European women to paint their faces pale.