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Palais Paar, Vienna, Austria, ca. It was a rainy October day in and the Statue of Liberty was shrouded in a French flag. The weather was miserable and the ceremonial unveiling went poorly. The drapery was pulled off too soon right in the middle of a speechand the fireworks display had to be canceled and rescheduled. Still, over a million freezing New Yorkers came out including a boat full of suffragettes, protesting the statue. Before she was the verdigris icon, patron saint of many a bespoke paint color, she was copper-skinned.
Brown, not green. When residents first beheld Lady Liberty, they saw not an otherworldly, aqua-skinned allegory holding her lit torch to the sky, but a metallic, regal woman stretching upward from a granite plinth. Mary Stuart was six days old when she became the Queen of Scotland.
Her precious body was guarded from that moment onward, moved like a pawn on a chessboard from one castle to another. Maybe Mary was doomed to always be loathed for her femaleness and her Catholicism. By the time she returned to the newly Protestant Scotland at age eighteen, she had spent over a decade in the French court, developing a taste for elaborate gowns and flashy jewels. While Mary was strutting around in fine lace and velvet and elaborate lockets, her people were told that God wanted them in chaste, sober clothes.
Portrait of Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots, c. This depressing list comes from a summary of the General Assembly of the Kirk, recorded in the Domestic Annals of Scotland. Although the upper classes continued to wear silks and velvets and pretty bright dresses, most people wore their sad rags.
It was more practical, to be dressed in dark gray and black and brown. Life for the lower classes was hard. The clothing reflected this fact.
And yet, thrown in with those drab colors was russet. In this context, russet was both a general chromatic descriptor and a specific type of rough spun cloth, colored with a mixture of woad a member of the cabbage family that was used to make a blue-gray dye and madder a similarly yellow-flowered herb whose roots could be turned into a pinkish-brown dye.
While Mary, Queen of Scots reportedly wore vivid scarlet under her black mourning clothes, her people dressed like dead leaves and gray stones. At their most vibrant, they could wear the color of rust, of dirty root vegetables, of aging fox fur. Over the last decade, I have learned to appreciate the textures and rhythms of the later months of the year. Russet is the color of November in Maine. The color that emerges when all the more spectacular leaves have fallen: the yellow coins of the white birch, the big, hand-shaped crimson leaves of the red maple, the papery pumpkin-hued spears of the beech trees.
The oaks are always the last to shed their plumage, and their leaves are the dullest color. Russet is a subtle color, complicated by undertones of orange and purple. Its only companions in this category are slate made from purple and green and citron made from green and yellow. Like russet, citron and slate occur often in the natural world. Unknown artist, botanical illustration c. This may explain why many cultures think of russet and similar dull reds as neutral hues, akin to the monochrome scale of white, black, and the innumerable shades between.
True reds, the crimsons and vermilions and scarlets, have historically been associated with fire, blood, and power. Finlay files red ocher among the browns—the ruddy pigment used in the caves of Lascaux—which is perhaps where it belongs.
Paging through both books, I see reds and browns together more often than not. A generous eye can see the fiery warmth blazing beneath the brown, the homely walnut emerging from the red. But russet means more than red-like, red-adjacent. It also means rustic, homely, rough. It also evokes mottled, textured, coarse. The word describes a quality of being that can affect people as well as vegetables. Apples can be russet, when they have brown patches on their skin. Potatoes famously are russet; their skin often has that strange texture that makes it impossible to tell where the earth ends and the root begins.
For Shakespeare, it was a color of poverty and prudence, mourning and morning. The color of his penance? Just a few decades after this was written, in a country not too far away, Peter Paul Rubens was painting with brilliant crimson and shocking vermilion. Rubens was a devout Roman Catholic, a religion that embraced sumptuous fabrics and rich colors. A generation later, another northern painter would rise to prominence: Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn.
While Catholic Rubens loved shocking reds, rich blues, and even sunny yellows, Protestant Rembrandt painted with a far more restrained palette. Many of his most famous paintings including his self portraits are predominantly brown and gray.
And when he did use color, Rembrandt very often reached for russet, auburn, fulvous, and tawny. Reds that leaned brown, and browns that leaned red. Sometimes, he brought in a splash of crimson to tell the viewer where they should focus the vibrant sash in Night Watchthe cloaks in Prodigal Sonand sometimes he let soft, misty yellow light bathe his bucolic landscapes.
His work was earthy, imbued with the quiet chill of early November. Its terra-cotta earthiness fits my mood. My mother always favored a restrained palette; she recently gave me a big bag of sweaters she no longer wants, and three of them are russet. One, a cable-knit wool turtleneck, is from the nineties, but it could be from the seventies. It could be from any decade, really. It has timeless mom energy, something I find myself needing to channel more and more often lately.
Call them cottage-core or cozy-core or whatever you like—I call them inspiring. These are women who have become very good at figuring out what light makes their small spaces look roomy, what angles make their baggy outfits look chic. They are people who have managed to style their thrift shop ceramics with tasteful stacks of books, chosen for the color of their spines and the way they sit on the shelves. They are people who can make the most of what they have, turn pixels into money, brown into russet.
I have to stay at home, stay safe, and save money. Collectively, it feels as if we are grasping at straws. I read a New York Times series from fashion deers on how to turn pillowcases into skirts and dishrags into handbags. Stripped of our museums and our boutiques and our money, we are now forced to occupy ourselves in new ways.
It harkens back to the grain-sack fashions of the Great Depression, dyed with marigold and cabbage, that the United States government pushed on broke housewives. Wladyslaw Strzeminski, Kompozycja architektoniczna, I hear a similar command echoing through our current events now. The top echelons of power are asking the lowest to support them wholeheartedly, to play the part of the willing serf, the peasant in russet while they go about in gaudy red ties that gleam polyester-bright on white dress shirts.
I see the same thunderhe gathering. I share the dread. I can ward it off, for brief moments, by focusing on beauty. The fear is still there, under the awe, under the gratitude, but for now, I walk around outside with my head tilted up, to better see the leaves and the blue sky behind.
For now, I notice the shades of brown that have been there long before us and will be there still. Katy Kelleher is a writer who lives in the woods of rural New England with her two dogs and one husband. She is the author of Handcrafted Maine. On a stretch of rural road not far from my house, there is a small wood where, once a year, for just a few short and cold days, the ground turns a magnificent shade of purple. In a reversal of fortunes, the stand of gracious Maine trees becomes secondary to the ground cover below.
The delicate mist is an impossibly soft color, like clouds descending into twilight, like the snowfall in an Impressionist masterpiece. Periwinkle goes by many names. In Italy, she is called fiore di morte flower of deathbecause it was common to lay wreaths of the evergreen on the graves of dead children.
I grew up calling her vinca, a pretty little two-syllable name, taken from her proper Latin binomial, Vinca minor. My mother cultivated periwinkle in our forested Massachusetts backyard, encouraging the hardy green vines to trail over the boulders and under the ferns. I would have been delighted to know even a fraction of vinca lore back then, but I knew nothing except she was poison.
I could eat the royal-purple dog violets, but I was not to pick the vinca. Vinca was poison and poison meant death. This, it turns out, is false. I thought all plants that grew in my yard were meant to be there, and I thought all poisonous things were bad. It chokes out other plants, stealing too many nutrients for native ground cover to grow.
Many New England gardeners do not plant it for this reason. Yet I grow it, partially because I know what it can do, what it has done. Charlotte Berrington, Vinca Minor. Vinca contains alkaloids, which can be terribly bad for you if ingested in the form of a flowering vine. For three hours every two weeks, you go and sit in a room with other patients, other sick people who have lost their hair and their eyebrows.
Together, you get alkaloids injected into your veins. You live because there is a medicine made from Madagascar periwinkle a close relative of Vinca minor that can kill cancer cells and cure your blood disease. You live because something poisonous can also be healing, an invasive species can also be curative—for a landscape and its people.
Vinca is a complex little plant, and periwinkle, named for its blossoms, is an equally complex color.Tall woman with paris review bag
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