In many parts of the modern world, white is seen as the colour of everything light and pure; of weddings and winter wonderlands. In some regions it has stood for purity, innocence and cleanliness, and in others death, mourning and the passage to new life; in many, it has represented the divine.
To the human eye, white light is a combination of all the colours on the spectrum. Like black, it is technically achromatic, and lacks hue. So why is it that artists have been fascinated by the colour white for centuries? Read on to discover more about the cultural history of this fascinating non-colour.
Though white light is not a colour, when white is used as a physical pigment it is considered one. White pigments come from a variety of sources such as calcite, titanium dioxide, zinc oxide and lead. Toxic lead white was notoriously – and fatally – used by many artists and as a cosmetic product, such as Venetian ceruse, for centuries.
Further back, white chalk – often made up of the mineral calcite – was used in prehistoric rock art and decoration. One of the most commonly found chalks was made from a soft type of limestone sedimentary rock, formed over time from a build-up of microscopic plankton settling on deep sea beds. Some examples of chalk art that have lasted to this day are vast in scale, such as the Uffington White Horse in the UK, which is the most ancient chalk-cut hill figure in Britain, dating back to over 3,000 years old.
The divine and pure
In many cultures white symbolises purity and innocence, while in others it symbolises death and the afterlife. One theme that links the two contrasting views is religion, as white represents all things holy and divine in both life and death. Priestesses in ancient Egyptian and Roman civilizations donned white robes, while many religious buildings, such as Wat Rong Khun (White Temple) in Thailand, were cast in white concrete or marble.
In Roman Catholicism, the Pope is robed in white, and in Japan, monks and priests of the Shinto and Buddhist faiths wear white, and it is also the colour of ceremonial and ritualistic objects such as bowls, sculptures and altars. In Renaissance masterpieces, white depicts angels, seen in stark contrast to the grotesque mayhem of Hell in Pieter Brueghel the Elder’s dizzying 1562 masterpiece, The Fall of the Rebel Angels.
Then we come to the cultural connotations denoting white’s purity. Consider harmless ‘white lies’, white flags raised to signify peaceful surrender in warfare and the white ‘yang’ of Taoist Chinese yin and yang philosophy that represents everything good, light and sunny that balances out the contrasting ‘yin’, or ‘dark side’, of black.
While white wedding dresses are now worn the world over, thought to represent innocence and new beginnings, the trend actually stems from a fashion statement; Queen Victoria’s white lace wedding dress in 1840 inspired many to follow in her footsteps – prior to this, brides would wear their best dress when marrying, no matter what colour it was.
This hasn’t stopped artists from depicting pure and innocent characters – particularly female figures – in white ever since. John William Waterhouse’s 1888 oil painting, The Lady of Shalott, depicts a romantic setting of a woman in a boat in her final moments, who dies of unrequited love, and therefore remains innocent until her death.
Cleanliness and clean lines
White in the 20th and 21st centuries tends to represent cleanliness and clean lines. As a result, has been a popular foundation to much contemporary architecture. The Modernist movement saw a rise in the popularity of angular white-hued buildings, from the Sydney Opera House to the Villa Dirickz in Brussels. Today, titanium dioxide is used in coatings, white concrete or render on buildings, giving them a white opaque look and, most impressively, enabling the buildings to act as an anti-pollution device through its filtration properties – titanium dioxide removes harmful nitrogen oxides from the air through a process known as ‘photocatalysis’. An example of this is the Palazzo Italia building in Milan, created by Nemesi architects Michele Molè and Susanna Tradati for the Milan Expo in 2015; they described the design as inspired by an ‘urban forest’.
White is also worn in spaces that promise to be clean and hygienic – in hotel laundry and linen, and in coats worn by doctors and nurses in hospitals, and scientists and technicians in laboratories, as well as bakers, butchers and chefs in professional kitchens. Anna Zinkeisen’s 1941 painting St Mary's First Aid Post by Candlelight showcases the changing role of women in society and their equally changing depiction in art. Rather than being portrayed merely as beautiful objects of desire, the piece shows the practical reality of female working nurses in uniform surrounded by medical supplies. In another vein, because white garments would prove to be difficult to clean, white has been used in formal attire, and would grow to be popular amongst the growing middle and upper-middle class. Cue the term ‘white collar worker’ – a phrase that linked its wearers with higher-status professions through the white dress shirts of office employees as opposed to the blue boiler suits of manual workers.
Because snow reflects every colour, and light bounces off its crystals, snow is white. It’s one of the most synonymous colours of winter – think mistletoe, white reindeer and experiencing a white Christmas if it snows during the festive season. In indigenous Alaskan and Canadian culture, there are between 40 and 50 terms used to describe different snow conditions, and hundreds in the Sami language of indigenous northern Scandinavia – from njáhtso, meaning ‘wet snow’ to habllek, which describes light, dust-like snow.
Artists have long sought to depict snowy scenes using white pigments, evoking a variety of emotions with the natural landscape – from tranquil to stormy. Many of the Impressionists lived and painting through a series of especially cold winters, and so focused on the effects of different lights on snow, in reflections, shadows and sunlight – Claude Monet painted more than 100 snow scenes during his lifetime, and was known to experience the bitterly cold landscapes in the flesh, painting en plain air.
Snow is a defining subject of winter scenes in Japanese woodblock prints. Rather than using white pigment, it is often created by an absence of paint – artists would keep the washi paper blank to create white space, such as in the series Fifty-three Stations of the Tôkaidô Road by Utagawa Hiroshige, circa 1840.
The human fascination with white makes what was once a non-colour a colour of significance, whether that’s in leaving spaces blank or clean, or in creating bold white statements when it comes to architecture, fashion and art.