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Colour Emblematics and Chromotherapeutic Emotion in the Paintings of D. H. Lawrence

Erik Martiny
p. 59-69

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1An interesting place to start a consideration of the significance of colour in Lawrence’s paintings is the picture entitled Close-Up (Kiss). The two main commentators of Lawrence’s artwork, Robert Millett and Keith Sagar, both feel that the picture is decidedly satirical. Robert Millett argues that the painting represents what Lawrence saw as the postlapsarian state which lead to merely “self-watching, self-conscious” desire (55). According to Millett, Lawrence’s “antagonism for the Cold Passion” (56) is palpable in this painting which “is intended to be a caricature of counterfeit emotion” (59). Also basing his evaluation of the painting’s meaning on Lawrence’s literary output, in this instance his poem “When I Went to the Film,” Keith Sagar concludes that the painting is a “biting and bitter satire” (59). Sagar also quotes Lawrence’s comment according to which “The most obscene painting on a Greek vase is not as pornographical as the close-up kisses on the film, which excite men and women to secret and separate masturbation” (59).

2The problem with this kind of reading is that ultimately there are insufficient objective grounds to suggest that the painting is unequivocally satirical. Millett describes the couple as “equally unattractive” (55) which is a rather subjective statement, especially considering the fact that the faces in Lawrence’s blatantly non-satirical paintings are rather often less prepossessing than these. In fact the woman’s sensuous, rather finely-drawn homely features make her one of Lawrence’s most pleasing portraits. As I will argue, the painting’s emotional temperature is also in large part determined by its distinctively warm use of colour. The man’s pouting mouth could perhaps be satirical but there are far worse deformities in some of Lawrence’s other paintings (a case in point being his figures’ frequently withered arms). Deformity, be it intentional or unintentional, cannot convincingly be regarded as satirical in the context of Lawrence’s art, the way it might be in the work of Otto Dix, George Grosz and other German Expressionists.

3David Ellis has argued that Close-Up (Kiss) “may reflect Lawrence’s own general dislike of kissing” (411). In a letter to the Huxleys, however, Lawrence rather enthusiastically refers to an anticipated kiss in his painting A Holy Family: “I call it the ‘Unholy Family’ because the bambino – with a nimbus – is just watching anxiously to see the young man give the semi-nude young woman un gros baiser. Molto moderno!” (Sagar 29). Ellis’s biographical reading is not borne out by Lawrence’s literary output either as it frequently and explicitly centres on kissing as an expression of genuine emotion. On a number of occasions in Women in Love one comes across the scriptorial equivalents of kisses in close-up framing. When Gudrun and Gerald kiss for the first time, Lawrence focuses our gaze directly on the lips: “Then she leaned forward and kissed him, with a slow, luxurious kiss, lingering on the mouth” (179). Another even more complicating kiss for the interpretation of the painting is the first one in The Rainbow, enjoyed by Tom and Lydia Brangwen: “she leaned forward a little, and with a strange, primeval suggestion of embrace, held him her mouth. It was ugly-beautiful, and he could not bear it” (48). Although Lydia is at that point still full of “a black void” (49), her desire is hardly meant to represent a counterfeit emotion. Moreover, the description of Lydia’s face as “ugly-beautiful” shows that ugliness is also something that is far from being rejected as worthless in Lawrence’s corpus, especially when it betokens deeply felt emotion. So the figures’ supposed ugliness cannot be considered a reliable criterion of evaluation.

4If technique and subject matter cannot be safely interpreted, does colour then provide a key to Lawrence’s emotional intentions? The hues adopted for this particular painting are somewhat different from those employed in the majority of Lawrence’s paintings. In general the tint he uses for flesh tones is a blending of colours that go from a soft, creamy pink to white; in Close-Up (Kiss) the lovers’ skins are depicted in a glowing, vibrant reddish yellow, close to the orange and yellows used by Lawrence’s contemporary Pierre Bonnard. Although they are strongly applied, the colours cannot be called garish, a colour scheme which might have opened the painting to being interpreted as chromatically symbolic of vulgar inauthenticity and meretriciousness. Moreover, Lawrence also used gaudy colours in an nonsatirical way in the painting called Flight Back Into Paradise.

5The polar colours black and white can sometimes carry a negative valence in Lawrence’s literary work, such as in “When I Went to the Film” where the poet uses the chromatic limitations of contemporary film to suggest emptiness: “all the black- / and -white feeling that nobody felt” (1-2), but yellow is invariably an emblem of warmth, emotional vitality and regeneration. The daffodils with which Tom Brangwen courts Lydia are insistently referred to as “the yellow flowers.” From the moment they are mentioned, as yet unpicked, they give vent to the intensity of Tom’s bottled-up passion: “the yellow flowers swayed violently up and down, he heard even the fine whisper of their spears as he stooped to break the flattened, brittle stems of the flowers” (42). In Flight Back Into Paradise, airwave flashes of yellow electrify the already densely charged struggle between Adam and the Angel. The gaudy yellow blast of fiery light emanating from paradise is set in contrast to the more infernally red volcano-like eruptions coming out of the factories that represent the fallen world of man. It might be pointed out, however, that if the use of yellow is unambiguously paradisiac, the red eruptions ultimately possess both positive and negative connotations: the factory chimneys are decidedly phallic in this painting and one of the erupting chimneys spouts lava that makes it look more like a glans than anything else. This contradictory symbolic coding, with the red phallic factory standing for both industrial inferno and Lawrencian penile goodness, is something that Lawrence repeats in his literary work. In The Rainbow, black can signify both negativity or great intensity from one page to the next and Women in Love makes white at times symbolise purity and ecstasy or death (during the boating catastrophe); at others, innocence, perfection, beauty, dream or death and emptiness (during the snow chapters).

6While for Lawrence’s contemporary, Wassily Kandinsky, yellow “is the typical earthly colour” that does not lead to emotional “higher worlds” (181), Lawrence’s use of it is close to the way Goethe saw it in his study of colour doctrine: “yellow is the colour nearest to light […] in its highest purity it always carries with it the nature of brightness, and has a serene, gay, softly exciting character” (48). Clearly for Lawrence, yellow was a key colour in his representation of emotion and he made use of it in a manner that does not break with the colour doctrines established in the Renaissance where it is perceived as a warm colour that fosters a feeling of proximity. It is therefore something of a contradiction to assert that Close-Up (Kiss) is obviously satirical.

7Whether or not Lawrence adhered to the theory according to which specific colours elicited set emotions or whether he gave credence to the ancient semi-magical belief that colours could heal or perform some kind of chromotherapy is not documented. Doctor Franz Freudenberg believed that he could cure nervous disorders by resorting to frequent exposure to coloured glass panels. Goethe and Kandinsky were both convinced that colours triggered identifiable emotions but recent studies suggest that there is ultimately no hard evidence to support colour psychology as a reliable science. These early twentieth-century attempts were no doubt fuelled by a passionate need to assert the value and power of art in an age that saw the beginning of its decline. If it is somewhat exaggerated to claim that colour alone can invariably awaken deep emotions, they might have this effect on a hypersensitive individual like Lawrence who, by all accounts, was given to great outbursts of emotion. His letters and other non-fictional writings show him to be excitable in the extreme, especially when discussing art. Of Jules Bastien-Lepage’s “Pauvre Fauvette” he wrote “that little pinched face looking out of the sack haunts me and terrifies me and reproaches me.” In the same letter he adds that “[John Singer] Sargent is wonderful – he takes my breath away” (Sagar 14).

8As Keith Sagar remarks, Lawrence tended to turn to painting when his health did not allow him to write (22). David Ellis also points out that he did not find painting as stressful as writing (330). The fact is that he executed most of his artwork over a two-year period, between 1927 and 1928 when his health was steadily declining. Lawrence seems to have engaged in painting as a form of therapy, if only as a means of recovering a sense of gaiety and vitality symbolised very explicitly by the prevalence of light warm colours such as yellow and pale orange and pink.

9Generally speaking, Lawrence tends to use emotionally cold colours such as pale blue and green almost exclusively as contrastive effects. These are usually found in the background of the paintings and therefore designed to suggest distance, Renaissance emblematics having established that these colours have a tendency to recede. The colours traditionally said to be warm Lawrence places in the foreground. So clearly his primary chromatic aim was to create a sense of warm, sensual participatory proximity for the onlooker.

10The Lizard is one of the rare paintings that seem to attempt to create a somewhat colder, almost depleted atmosphere. The green lizard in the foreground connects with the grass that lies between and behind the couple as well as with the pale blue sky in the distance. The couple seem rather glum and emotionally detached from one another as if both are isolated in their separate sadness. By making their skin hues tend towards brown greyness, this painting comes close to making the traditionally “warm” colours seem less warm and vivid than the blue and green.

11In general, though, colder colours are used in a complementary manner, to offset and enhance the warmer colours in Lawrence’s paintings. The only other painting that puts blue centre stage is A Holy Family, a picture in which the azure blue shirt worn by Joseph is allowed to be as powerful and radiant as Mary’s sun-kissed flesh.

12This dense Bonnard-like vibrancy was only sought in less than half of Lawrence’s paintings however. His other works seem to aim for an understated paleness which gives the distinct impression that even his oil paintings are actually watercolours. Lawrence’s preference for oils comes as a bit of a surprise: he told Maria Huxley that he favoured oils because “one can use one’s elbow, and in water it’s all dib-dab” (Ellis 409). A good many of Lawrence’s paintings do however seem to attempt to create the kind of tranquil emotion one associates with watercolours. Powerful emotion is therefore not something that Lawrence frequently seems to render or aim to elicit in his painting.

13If many of Lawrence’s pictures are pale-hued, they often also seem to aspire to whiteness. White is probably the colour he dramatises the most, alongside blue and black, in his writing: it tends to accompany his emotional epiphanies, as for instance, in Women in Love, when Gudrun watches Gerald emerge from the water during the boating catastrophe: “Oh, and the beauty of the subjection of his loins, white and dimly luminous as he climbed over the side of the boat, made her want to die, to die” (184). At the beginning of the “Water-Party” chapter, Birkin describes ultimate beauty as “all our white phosphorescent flowers of sensuous perfection” (175).

14While the flesh tones in most of Lawrence’s paintings are paler and pinker than the average European beige, some figures are almost entirely white, as in the oil painting known as Dance-Sketch, a picture in which the phosphorescently white woman seems to dissolve into the blanched ground. The redder male figure behind her is also irradiated by the woman’s hand, at the point at which she seems to touch him; the white goat on the right echoes both her colour and body language. The symbolically magical properties of the humanized goat confer a somewhat numinous quality to the colour white. This Dionysian ecstasy is also symbolised by another white creature that energizes Lawrence’s painting: the swan in his “Leda” and in one of his very last paintings, “Singing of Swans.”

15“Dance-Sketch” is one of the very few paintings in which Lawrence attempts to introduce a chromatic difference between male and female figures. In the earlier “A Holy Family,” the man wears a blue shirt that complements the woman’s golden glow; in “Dance-Sketch,” by contrast, Lawrence departs somewhat from Goethe’s doctrine according to which blue is masculine and yellow is feminine. According to Robert Millett, the gendered colour symbolism in this painting was influenced by a tomb Lawrence described in Etruscan Places: “She is drawn fair-skinned, as all the women are, and he is of a dark red colour. […] In the early days men smeared themselves with scarlet when they took on their sacred natures” (Millett 101). While “Dance-Sketch” undoubtedly seeks to portray the primitive, religious emotions triggered by pagan rituals based on the exaltation of the notion of gender essences, it might also be pointed out that this chromatic distinction between the sexes was a frequent motif in art during Lawrence’s time. It was particularly popular among Symbolist painters and Surrealists. Franz von Stuck used figures of different colours in his Kiss of the Sphinx as did Kosma Petrov-Vodkine for his painting entitled Sleep. Max Ernst’s Dressing of the Bride, with its green, phallus-billed bird figure and Paul Delvaux’s Pygmalion also make use of this gendered or contrastive figure colouring.

16For Kandinsky, the colour white symbolised a promise, a richness, a fecund silence, whereas black was without resonance, a dead colour without hope or possibility. Although Lawrence’s writing is shot through with references to “black disintegration” (The Rainbow 343), it conversely contains even more references to the “dark richness” (The Rainbow 448) and the “pristine darkness of paradise” (The Rainbow 451). In Lawrence’s writing, both white and black can acquire negative connotations: Birkin refers to some people as corrupt lilies (Women in Love 175) and Ursula’s final response to Skrebensky is said to be full of “a fierce, white, cold passion” (The Rainbow 320). By contrast, Lawrence’s painterly white is invariably the colour of the soul in rapture and his painter’s use of black is just as unambiguous: as a general rule, the colour symbolism of his artwork tends to offer simplified chromatic values.

17To judge from his writing, Lawrence would no doubt have liked what the French painter Pierre Soulages has said about the colour black: according to Soulages, black incites the viewer towards interiority. He speaks of its secret light which he calls Noir-lumière, a kind of black luminosity which he also called Outrenoir (Mollard-Desfour 14), literally “Beyond Black.” Another deeply introspective artist, the Franco-Belgian poet and painter Henri Michaux likewise said that the colour black was the equivalent of a crystal ball. Having preceded these painter-writers, it is likely that Lawrence drew the oxymoronic colour effects in his poetry directly from devotional literature: Henry Vaughan’s “deep but dazzling darkness” (“The Night” 50) is a typical example of this recurrent trope in seventeenth-century poetry.

18Although Lawrence’s paintings are surprisingly sparing in their use of black, he did not refrain from using black and white as the Impressionists did on the grounds that these colours did not exist in nature. Lawrence’s painterly black, however, is a rather pale variety that is quite a far cry from Soulages’s Outrenoir. For a writer who wrote so many nocturnes and other poems in which black features very centrally (especially in his underworld poems), it is surprising to find that it is present only in such an attenuated form in his paintings. This paleness is again related to the calming effect and the watery warmth that Lawrence seems to have sought in his artwork. With some exceptions, intensity and powerful emotion are often something Lawrence preferred to describe in some of his writing.

19Darker colours can be found in a few of Lawrence’s paintings however, although pure black is usually absent, even for the rendering of genital hair. It was Lawrence’s inclusion of pubic hair, not nudity in itself, that became such an emotive issue for the Georgian public of the 1920s. During the police’s seizure of Lawrence’s paintings in the very beginning of his exhibition at the Warren Gallery in London, the art critic Philip Trotter, having been called on to offer an expert’s view of the paintings, pointed out that what gave Boccacio Story its harmony was the meeting of the painting’s lines of force in the “central patch of dark” (Ellis 491). By “patch of dark” he apparently meant the reclining peasant’s pubic hair. The designated patch is far from black, however, and it is only in paintings such as Resurrection that Lawrence explored the emotional potential of black. The Christ figure’s black hair and beard betokens his funereal condition but it also contributes greatly to his powerful presence and his emotive appeal. Indeed it seems a pity that Lawrence did not avail himself more of the dramatic and moving effects of chiaroscuro, especially as he was clearly drawn to them in such an elaborate way in his poetry and prose.

20Lawrence himself can be said to have frequently succumbed to what Pound called “art emotion,” coming close at times to experiencing Stendhal’s syndrome and wishing others to experience it. His painting itself is perhaps not great enough to trigger powerful emotion in the modern observer even if his averred aim at the time was apparently to produce a sense of shock. In a letter to Earl Brewster, Lawrence pointed out that

I […] put a phallus, a lingam as you call it, in each one of my pictures somewhere. And I paint no picture that won’t shock people’s castrated social spirituality. I do this out of positive belief, that the phallus is a great sacred image: it represents a deep, deep life which has been denied in us, and still is denied. (Sagar 43)

21Disappointed by his friends’ prudish attitude to his paintings, Lawrence fantasized about a work of art that could create such intense emotion that its consequences would be potentially genocidal: “I wish I could paint a picture that would just kill every cowardly and ill-minded person that looked at it” (Ellis 331). One is reminded here of Ezra Pound’s protégé, the experimental composer and pianist George Antheil, who on one occasion placed an automatic pistol on the front desk of his Steinway so that the audience would listen with bated breath to every note he played. The cultural chromotherapy Lawrence envisaged at that highly emotive juncture in his life was somewhat radical, not to say lethal. It is reminiscent of Gerald Crich’s reaction to his sister’s death and thus brings Lawrence closer to this male character than criticism has generally allowed: “‘Better she were dead – she’ll be much more real. She’ll be positive in death. In life she was a fretting, negated thing’” (Women in Love 189).

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Ball, Philip. Histoire vivante des couleurs. Trans. Jacques Bonnet. Paris: Hazan, 2005.

Ellis, David. D. H. Lawrence: Dying Game. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998.

Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von. The Theory of Colours. London: Dover, 2006.

Kandinsky, Wassily. Concerning the Spiritual in Art. London: Dover, 1977.

Lawrence, D. H. Women in Love. London: Penguin, 2000.

___. The Rainbow. London: Penguin,

___. The Works of D. H. Lawrence. Ware: Wordsworth Editions, 1994.

Millett, Robert W. The Vultures and the Phoenix. London: Associated University Presses, 1983.

Mollard-Desfour, Annie. Le noir. Paris: CNRS Editions, 2005.

Sagar, Keith. D. H. Lawrence’s Paintings. London: Chaucer Press, 2003.

Vaughan, Henry. The Complete Poems. London: Penguin, 1976.

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Erik Martiny, « Colour Emblematics and Chromotherapeutic Emotion in the Paintings of D. H. Lawrence », Études Lawrenciennes, 43 | 2012, 59-69.

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Erik Martiny, « Colour Emblematics and Chromotherapeutic Emotion in the Paintings of D. H. Lawrence », Études Lawrenciennes [En ligne], 43 | 2012, mis en ligne le 20 décembre 2013, consulté le 18 janvier 2018. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/lawrence.85

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Erik Martiny

Erik Martiny teaches anglophone literature in Aix-en-Provence. His research interests have focused primarily on contemporary poetry, but he is equally interested in the modern novel, genre theory and the interface between literature and the visual arts. He has published a book with L’Harmattan on intertextual and inter-authorial relationships in poetry from the fourteenth century to the present day.

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