Orange: Peeling back the layers of a fruitful history

Sunny orange succeeds in being an energetic, fun colour. The colour of warmth; of a good time. But this does not mean it is superficial – the history of orange is rich with cultural and religious significance. In Ancient Greece, orange was connected to the god of hedonism and enjoyment – Bacchus, whereas in Hinduism, Confucianism and Buddhism it represents purity and spirituality.  

Artists throughout history have been captivated by orange’s energy and intensity, from Mark Rothko to Henri Matisse and Georgia O'Keeffe. Orange has connections with the Dutch royal family, and more recently it’s played a pivotal role in social and political movements in the 20th and 21st century. Join us as we peel back the layers of orange’s fruitful history.

Orange origins 

What came first, the fruit or the colour? The etymology of the English word for orange reveals that it was, in fact, the fruit that came before the colour association. Prior to the 15th century in Europe, before Spanish and Portuguese merchants imported the orange fruit to the continent, the colour was referred to as yellow-red.  


Paul Gauguin, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons


The fruit originally came from China – but the English word comes from the Old Persian narang. Persian royalty would collect exotic trees such as orange trees for their landscape gardens. Arabs later traded the fruit and spread the word to Moorish Spain (the Spanish word for orange is naranja).  
Spirituality and alchemy 

In Buddhism, Jainism and Hinduism, monks and holy figures such as Krishna wear bright saffron robes. Saffron pigment was costly, but readily available to dye clothes. Eventually, orange became the colour connected to various spiritual values, such as the highest state of enlightenment in Buddhism. In Jainism and Hinduism orange can also be intended to signify light and fire, and the quest for spiritual knowledge, whereas in Confucianism and Taoism, orange is associated with the notion of spiritual transformation.  
Ancient civilisations in India and Egypt utilised orange pigments derived from minerals like realgar. These were used for various artistic purposes, including Ancient Egyptian tomb paintings and colouring manuscripts made by medieval artists. Orange pigments were also made in ancient times from a mineral known as orpiment. Along with being a popular painting medium, its naturally golden-yellow hue made it of great interest to alchemists, and some believed it held the secret to forming gold. Orpiment was even used as a medicine in China, despite its toxicity. However, with the advent of new pigments in the 19th century, the use of these minerals declined due to concerns over its levels of arsenic content. 
The colour of amusement 

Orange has long been associated with amusement, frivolity and entertainment. In Ancient Greek and Roman mythology, the god of wine, rituals and ecstasy, Bacchus or Dionysus, is often seen cloaked in an orange robe in paintings such as Alessandro Turchi’s Bacchus and Ariadne (1630), surrounded by a mass of exuberant bodies in states of high energy and hedonism. 


Alessandro Turchi, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons


n Western art, the introduction of synthetic orange pigments, such as chrome orange in the early 19th century, allowed artists to effectively capture the effects of natural light. It was especially favoured by Pre-Raphaelite painters and Impressionists such as Gauguin, Renoir and Van Gogh. Henri Toulouse-Lautrec used the colour to symbolise the raucous energy and excitement of Parisian days and, particularly, nights – from bustling cafes to dance halls and theatres such as the Moulin Rouge, including his series of promotional posters for the venue. The artist illustrated bohemian performers, singers and artists mid-movement, in vivid colour and bold outlines from a range of angles. 

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, CC BY-SA 4.0 , via Wikimedia Commons
Ghirlandajo at the English-language Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

Orange today 

Orange is rooted in Dutch culture due to its association with the Dutch Royal Family, the House of Orange (Huis van Oranje). As such, orange has been adopted as the national colour of The Netherlands, particularly when related to festivitiesfrom sporting uniforms to the annual celebrations of King's Day (Koningsdag). This day is a national holiday dedicated to the birth of King Willem-Alexander, and is known as Queen’s Day if the reigning monarch is female. The collective frenetic energy and liveliness experienced during the celebrations is known as orange madness (oranjegekte), again showcasing orange as the colour of revelry. 


Kerry Ritz, CC BY 2.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons


Orange has more recently become a symbol of human rights; there are a number of organisations around the world who use the colour to represent a call for peace and change. The Orange Revolution in Ukraine brought the colour to the forefront of international news when it was wielded as a symbol of protest against electoral fraud. Furthermore, the United Nations' Orange the World campaign uses orange to raise awareness and combat gender-based violence, emphasising the colour's power to inspire action. 
From its humble origins as a mere fruit to its cultural and artistic significance, orange continues to leave a lasting impact. Whether it is adorning the works of renowned artists or representing movements for change, orange’s energy continues to captivate cultures and evoke emotion all over the world.

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