Illustration 1, Degas, The Cotton Market, New Orleans (oil on canvas, 1873)

Introduction: Clothes, Colour and Meaning

 

            In Degas’s The Cotton Market, New Orleans (illus. 1), the radiant fluff of new cotton on the table, which seems made of the white light that illumines it, contrasts distinctly with the black figures of the connoisseurs and potential buyers. One of them holds up to a colleague a spray of new cotton, with a movement he might make in a different kind of painting – offering a chalice to someone he admires (but his stance here is less celebratory: he has one foot up on the seat of a chair). Everywhere in the painting different blacks play against different whites: top-hat, shoe-leather, darkness (the fireplace); cotton, paint, paper, daylight (the window). With its calm recession of people and rectangles, its space and high ceiling, its even clear light, the painting sees a certain grace in the world of business. The men in their black suits are at their ease, assaying, appraising, comfortable in acumen; the black man in black, leaning on a sill, appraises the appraisers. It is a world of men and money, in which a dazzling raw material (which would, a few years earlier, have been tended on the plantation by the enslaved parents of the negro) is traded before being transformed into clothes – into such radiant white shirts as all the men are wearing, notably the clerk in shirt-sleeves on the right, writing in a ledger with a fastidious expression. (Later, thrown away as rags, the same material might become paper, or newspaper.) And the painting reflects the value of clothes. The men’s black has its formality, however much the men are at their ease. It reflects position, whether they are owners or employees; it reflects their impersonality of expertise. They owe it both to themselves and to their situation to wear this common colour so. The man in the light jacket, at the end of the table, is not of them: he is perhaps a grower, waiting with a concerned stare to know the price the cotton may fetch. He has the produce, but they, at this point, have the power.

 

            The people not shown are women, though the cotton on the table will be transformed chiefly into dresses for women, especially into muslin, which many of the women attached to these men will be wearing, in their world: at home, in their garden, or out (accompanied). They will be wearing white – in the New Orleans sun they will be radiant at least as the new cotton here – as the men are wearing mainly black. And if their white shows both that they are not in service (unless the white is an apron), and also is virtue, more precious than the costliest muslins, made from the best cotton trade prices can fetch, still the men’s black will pull rank. It has gravity, authority.

 

            One could be struck by the quiet assurance men’s black has here. For, five hundred years earlier, in Europe, such a group of men, dressed almost all in black, might well have been monks or friars: the radiant white table might carry sacred things. They would have been clerics – or they would have been mourners. Five hundred years earlier still they would, simply, have been mourners: and then the white long shape on the table, which has, broadly, human proportions, would have been the body, wrapped in its white winding-sheet. They would not, then, have sat so casually; and they would not have been only men. There would have been both men and women in black, grieving together. For if this book is about one gender and one colour, it is because the curious metamorphosis that has occurred in the use of black cloth – that is, the empowerment of black – has occurred primarily in men’s dress (for obvious reasons), while women have tended, almost until the present century, to be left with the grieving and penitential use of black. Even when brilliant, rich, powerful women have worn magnificent black in the past, they have usually needed the pretext of mourning to do so. And what has seemed to me a curious point of interest for study is the way in which, through time, the use of this colour – the colour that is without colour, without light, the colour of grief, of loss, of humility, of guilt, of shame – has been adopted by men not as the colour of what they lack or have lost, but precisely as the signature of what they have: of standing, goods, mastery. The subject, in other words, involves more than externals. It relates to the relations between people in society, and to the relations between men and women; and to the way in which people display externally what in some ways is a ‘dark’ interior of human motivation…

© 2019 by John Harvey, jrh49@cam.ac.uk 

Novelist, art critic, literary critic and Fellow of Emmanuel College, Cambridge

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