An important color

Thursday, November 26, 2015 2 Permalink 0

Hue and hewn

When I first came to France I thought I would be a flag-waving purist about French Revolutionary values, and at the very least, for sure, always eschew any hint of royalism. Liberté-Egalité-Fraternité all the way! Napoleon Bonaparte was as far as I would go.

It would be clear and distinct unadulterated colors for me: Bleu-blanc-rouge, baby. Primaries!

Black, okay.  It’s France. You have to have black. Black is a non-color anyway.

And okay, gray. Fine, that’s just white and black mixed… Okay, gray. But pure gray. And that’s it!

I was coming from Florida, after all, and trying to put the whole Lilly-Pulitzer/Ed-Hardy thing behind me like a decadent Ancien Régime that had given way to studied rectitude and simple stoic good taste.

But given a little time and a lot of reading, I quickly learned that it’s more complicated than that.

The black and white… they get easily into your blue and red, as leftists and rightists are both apt to invade the suggested heraldic buffer zones, and those primary colors also – even those two polar extremes – often overlap and can sometimes mix and fold together inextricably, particularly in times of crisis and chaos.

It’s a veritable race to the bottom toward a tertiary baseline of mud after that.

We rest atop the sedimentary sum of the past, for better and worse, good times and bad, conservatives and liberals, religious and iconoclasts. Despite the tidy color fields of symbol, not much is actually clearcut. Even the dead royals have something to teach our democracy about ourselves as a nation. They might even have had a more honest idea about national colors, too, than we do today.

After long contemplation, M. and I painted all the big double-doors downstairs in this cockroach-brown purply-red color called puce, and all the baseboards running the perimeter of every room. Even the front door and the shutters on the facade. It has been, since we moved here to le Camparol (and long before Pantone named their 2015 color of the year), our theme color.

Now of course it is peaking in vogue, and we are seeing our theme color on automobiles, in advertising, used for hair dye, scarves, stationery…

I will only plead this: Let us remember what it means, and what it cost.

Fluctuat nec mergitur

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A brick wall with a long story, in la Magdelaine sur Tarn.

It’s been a long two weeks. The attacks in Paris have left a deep dent in the national psyche. In the confusing aftermath, not one of us is trying to compromise our national pride or morals, and people want to be brave and forward-thinking.

But the nature of the attacks, being random assaults on everyday non-political private venues, has universalized the sense of dread. Even trips to the grocery store become tinged with the thought, “what to do if…,” and how much moreso any trips to ballgames or crowded concerts or mass protests.

Every kiss goodbye in the morning still feels like it really could be the last.

Maybe in some ways that’s a good thing. It reminds us how precious every moment of life can be, how valuable our security and solidarity, how to raise our standard of readiness, and how not to hold back the expression of our feelings, waiting to say “I love you” for a better time which may never come.

More of us will die in this war before it is over. Sadly we already know that much to be true.

But that does not mean that we have to live afraid of that death or those losses so much that we compromise who we are. On the contrary, it is more important than ever that we give each other the courage to hold our head up and face the enemy without fear, with a will of steel and our reason intact – and a steady aim.

This is not the first nor the last blood to be shed for this République, but it is critical that in our time we hold our own as the unbroken link between the two, between this nation’s past and its future.

We are in a hard period, but the motto of the city of Paris itself reads wisely Fluctuat nec mergitur. Take heart. We are beaten by the waves, yet we do not sink.

A cold blood

Blood gets much play as a symbol in France: The blue blood of royal dynasty and the redhot blood of patriots. Even the impure blood of tyrants and invaders gets a gorey feature role in the chorus of the national anthem, when it is used to “water the rows of our fields.” (It is said that everything a Frenchman does is toward a good dinner – that includes even perhaps war.)

In words that might surprise Americans, the President of this République, in rallying his people to calm and action in this time of crisis, has called on us to summon in ourselves a Gallic sangfroid, a cold blood.

So as he bade, our blood is cold this late autumn: Dark, cold and full of iron much harder than ice. We know what we face. We must also know, for certain and sure, without conflict or confusion, down to the marrow of our bones, what and who we are in essence, so that we do not lose it.

It has been commonly reported since the attacks that the retort of Paris has been to celebrate ordinary life and to get on with living: Champagne and dancing, laughter and music, autumn walks, art and museums, cafés and parks, arm in arm in the City of Light, the Eiffel Tower in all its glory glittering with the Bleu-Blanc-Rouge.

I personally agree that this is the best possible memorial to our martyrs and the sweetest revenge on our enemies. We answer with life, love, beauty and the pursuit of happiness.

These festivities are no longer frivolity but a national duty. And through them pumps the resolve of sangfroid. Cold blood. Not the firey hot blood of the rash and easy patriot, but a steely readiness, a strength that hovers in wait over the well-irrigated fields soaked with the old blood of tyrants, now mingled with that of our brothers and sisters.


The Pantone color of the year in 2015 was unpopular but prescient. They called it Marsala, but many people thought of it less flatteringly instead as Mauve, or Bruise, or Raw Liver.

Pantone took a lot of ribbing for this one, but I was overjoyed, because it is one of my favorite colors and has been since long before I came to France, though it’s here that I have for the first time been allowed to live it fully and shamelessly.

I would call that color puce. Puce means a flea in French. And in loving this color, I am in distinguished company, if not very popular.

It is purported to have been Marie Antoinette’s last favorite color. There are no portraits of her wearing anything puce to corroborate that account, nor for that matter to even precisely define the color with any Pantone-level exactitude by pigment formula.

But it’s a romantic notion [sic] and we do know that the last days of the Ancien Régime were characterized by a false modesty in dressing down on the part of the élites, a progressive lowering of the wig, as it were, right to the point of losing their heads.

Another part of that same vogue for downdressing was the popularity of squalid color names for the dingy peasant-worthy colors most popular at the Court of France in its last excesses – base names for base colors which were already hard to love.

You will recognize this naming trend from the grunge colors of today, which attempt to be as unpalatable as possible in climbing the perverse pinnacle of fashion, with such monickers as Oilspill, Acid Burn, Drab Slag and Smoker’s Tooth. Only the truly rich can afford to buy jeans with holes already in them.

The 1780s version was more on the order of Dauphin Poop, Mouse, Pondscum, Mucous Drip, Toadbelly and the like – and, of course, Puce (flea). 

Gross, and la Grossesse

You will probably have noticed that puce does not appear to be the color of a flea at all. That’s because the French court by this time had become so over-opulent and its pleasures so exaggerated that they had to get just as disgusting as they could in order to amuse themselves, and so puce was not named for the obvious and potentially noble silver-gray color of a flea on the outside.

No, puce as a color name refers to the flea after it has been crushed. And more specifically to the dark coagulated blood color of the smear of a flea which had gorged on its host before death.

They might have less wryly called this dark purply-brown colorscab.” Or, more descriptively, Scab Stain of Crushed Flea on Powdered White Blue-Blood Bosom.

Absent painted evidence and any Pantone back in the day, no one can know for sure if there was an exact color that Marie Antoinette or her stylists had in mind. Interpretations of the written accounts range from mauve to eggplant to burnt umber. But the legend lives on.

f22dbd046fe1bd561324df2c88f999f0Not to get too far into it, suffice to say that, as you might expect of the very last days before the Déluge, everything to do with frivolous court life was more witty and derivative than we can easily penetrate today. By political design, they had a lot of time on their hands with nothing else to do.

So not unlike “oilspill” colors today, the seemingly ignominious christening of puce was, for complex reasons of a privileged and twisted sense of humor involving erudite classical allusions, public health woes, contemporary art and social gossip, both an offense to the senses and a turn-on to the sensibilities.

It conjured simultaneous images of sexuality through promiscuity and puns on maidenhood (une pucelle), accusations of vermin, Catullus and also the titillating ideas that a flea could bite anywhere it wished unnoticed til it was too late, mingle blood from different lovers within itself, and even become engorged on royal blood (a rare example of rapid social mobility in instantly becoming a blue-blooded “puce” du sang).

The metaphors knew no limits, and another decadent fashion was born, though this one was per force quite brief.

Here is an excellent and entertaining redaction of many historical stories on the origins of the color puce which appeared in Cabinet Magazine:

Revolutionary Values

There could be no more appropriate color for 2015 than a version of puce, at least not in France.

The unexpected bite of a pestilence unseen, the drawing of blood, vermin crushed in the crescendo end to a frivolous and excessive era – and the whole of the historical context, both gruesome and grandiose, has made us who we are today, when we find ourselves again in an era of opulence so precarious that the urge among the jaded élites is to dress down, mocking the squalor of the lower zoo while almost trying to hide inside it, like a camouflage mimicking their paucities.

At the very same time we are called to examine coagulating blood on the sidewalks in horrifying media images and, sorry to say, occasionally in person. This may get much worse before it gets better.

These are confusing times, and the blue and the red are surely mingled in France today on a scale more shaded toward the black than tinted toward the white. It is an old color by now, a baseline, claimed and reclaimed, and cycled around to us again. It is the color of old noble blood drawn out by a bite unawares. It is the blood we carry in us now chilled toward dark impassioned mourning and dispassionate resolve. It is the color of all of us together, folded into one.

I will only plead this yet again: Let us remember what sangfroid means, what it costs, and let us be quite collected and careful as we march forward this time deciding whose blood is gorged and whose will be spilled to abreuve nos sillons.

Vive la France!

La Femme à la Puce, by George de la Tour, ~1638.

La Femme à la Puce, by George de la Tour, ~1638.