Richard Le Gallienne’s “The Boom in Yellow”: Yellow is the New Green
Richard Le Gallienne’s satirical essay “The Boom in Yellow” demonstrates a critique of Victorian Aestheticism and Decadence through an invocation of yellow that subverts the decadent and aesthetic fascination with fashion and extravagant language devices. Gallienne deals with what is fashionable and popular within Victorian culture through a satirical defense of yellow’s triumph. The query that rests within The Boom in Yellow relates to the authenticity of Gallienne’s tone, as he employs a satirical tone in his presentation of Victorian Aestheticism and Decadence. Gallienne satirizes the verse style that the decadents employed in their search for sensations. In keeping with the themes of Victorian Aestheticism and Decadence, Gallienne suggests that the color yellow may be associated with both beauty and the ideal, as well as degeneration and decline; indeed, yellow in this sense comes to represent false or deceptive sensations. This notion of mocking superficiality within both art and real life underlies the satirical approach of Gallienne’s essay, which may be observed in phrases such as, “phantasmal yellow poplars” and “gold-mines” that are proved to not be as yellow as “popularly supposed.”
Gallienne begins his essay by elaborating upon the traditional influence of the color green within Victorian art and culture. Gallienne notes that there has been a colloquial representation of green as being innocence itself. Hence, artists with an appreciation of the color green have often been associated with having an artistically subtle temperament. Gallienne associates complex forms of the color green as having a sinister quality, yet he distinguishes this as being separate from the simple form of green that is found in nature. There is mentioning of the “green of the aesthete,” which Gallienne articulates as not being suggestive of innocence. It is through this allusion that Gallienne references The Green Carnation, which was a piece of literature written by Robert Hichens. The Green Carnation attempted to recreate the relationship that was shared between Oscar Wilde and Lord Alfred Douglas. This scandalous novel resulted in a success from scandal, but also trials against Wilde for indecency.
There is a distinction between complexity and simplicity which underlies Gallienne’s The Boom in Yellow, as yellow is celebrated as being “simple, pure, and heroic”; however, Gallienne associates yellow with a variety of presentations and images, almost as if the color yellow has taken over his stream of consciousness. There is an anxiety for a new color sensation that carries more positive associations, relating to a desire for a new artistic movement and culture within the Victorian period. Gallienne marks that there is a desire to return to simplicity in art through an appeal to the “primary colors of life.” Gallienne notes that the triumph of yellow is emerging and that a love for green implies a love of yellow, thereby connecting the emerging artistic movement with prior fashions. Gallienne suggests that yellow is becoming more prominent within decoration, as yellow reflects more light. There is a distinctive quality of the color yellow that allows it to expand rooms and set things ablaze. This notion relates to the idea of art and life mirroring one another in fashions of superficiality, while also emphasizing the momentary and illusory sense of beauty that is echoed within Victorian Aestheticism and Decadence.
Gallienne indicates that The Yellow Book’s sales were benefitted by its color scheme and fashionable ties to yellow. This allusion pays reference to the British quarterly literary periodical, The Yellow Book, which was often associated with French novels and their salacious and risqué content. Therefore, The Yellow book became a symbol of new movements within the Victorian period. The Yellow Book became associated with Aestheticism and Decadence, as the work contained a multitude of literary and artistic genres, but featured a yellow cover that elicited scandal in its relation to French novels and their illicit content. Gallienne argues that the surge of interest in the color yellow has come about through the work of publishers, notably the Bodley Head publishing house. Gallienne expresses that as the trend caught on there was an attempt to naturalize the custom of binding books in yellow paper. Yellow emerges as the “color of romance” in literature; however, yellow also maintains a fashion of being associated as the “fatal color” in the East, which has garnered further reputation and ambiguity for the fashion of yellow.
Gallienne states that yellow has become a fashion that is always “somewhere in the world” and has created a “yellow sea” in its popularity. This conveys the idea that there are a great deal of pleasantries that are yellow in life, yet this notion of yellow as being ideal is held in conflict throughout the essay, wherein yellow things are frequently described as being ethereal and dream-like in nature. Although other colors may pose within “poetical illusion or inaccuracy,” Gallienne insists that yellow represents a purity of ideal; however, there is tension that this may not necessarily be the case. Blue may represent the sky or sea, but only within certain instances. Green is associated with vegetation, but also with monotonous life. This monotony is reflected in Gallienne’s repetitious phrase “grass, grass, grass, trees, trees, ad infinitum.” Yellow is deemed to represent versatility and roving lifestyles, as yellow often colors a great diversity of things. Gallienne even suggests that there is a greater variety of color within yellow itself, as he distinguishes several hues of yellow in his essay that partake in the aspects of yellow-ness.
Gallienne notes that two of the most important objects in the world, the sun and money, are both yellow, which is meant to imply an importance in their association. Yellow is traditionally associated with many favorite phrases and is separate from intensities and dangers that are often related to reds and blues. Gallienne relates yellow to the “coloring of the loveliest thing in the world,” the hair of women, which he describes as being “naturally golden-unnaturally also.” Yellow in this sense describes an ideal beauty within the Victorian Era which other forms of beauty are measured to, both in art and in life. This notion of natural and unnatural beauty describes an underlying desire of conformity toward the standard of idealized beauty within art and how it affected popular fashion of the period. There is a cautious tone in Gallienne’s distinction between the natural and unnatural beauty of the ideal and that it is difficult to tell the difference between “real gold” and “false gold hair,” which appears to ridicule the idea of correlating morals and ethics within fashions of artistic beauty.
Gallienne suggests that yellow also has its place in nature, as yellow may be found on leaves and flowers; however, yellow has an integrative quality, as “leaves still dearer to the heart are yellow.” Gallienne’s entire stream of thought is overtaken by the idea of yellow, as it comes to encompass the entirety of his dream, as he imagines, “a maid with yellow hair, clad in a yellow gown, seated in a yellow room, at the window a yellow sunset, in the grate a yellow fire, at her side a yellow lamplight, on her knee a yellow book.” Gallienne establishes a substantial list of imagery; however, there is detail and repetition with both the color and ideas being discussed. The continually changing imagery suggests that yellow has become a style that lacks true and absolute substance and can be applied to other concepts.
There is a sophisticated complexity within Gallienne’s style, which appears to create distance between the color yellow, The Yellow Book periodical, and their association with Decadence and Aestheticism. Gallienne does not deny that there are some disagreeable aspects of yellow, but there is preference to the “yellow blessings” that the color provides. Accordingly, both “friars and harlots are clad in yellow,” as both life and art become engrossed in the artistic movements of the period and are dictated by their fashion. There is a cathartic moment at the end of the essay where the color yellow is associated with the “temptuous” garment of Julia, which Gallienne expresses is the most pretty thing for yellow, but the essay does not resolve itself in this regard, rather it poses a question of whether this truly is the most pretty expression of the color to the reader.
Consequently, Gallienne appears to offer a literary satire on Victorian Aestheticism and Decadence through this essay, as there is a serious tone that is present throughout the piece, which juxtaposes the frivolous topic of choice, namely the popularity of color. Gallienne’s essay appears to critique the Aesthetic movement as being shallow in its depth and view of the world, as it emphasizes concerns merely associated with appearances and what is deemed fashionable. Hence, Gallienne appears to mock the Aesthetic movement for being concerned with mere superficiality. Additionally, there seems to be implications that despite yellow being a symbol of the Victorian Decadence movement, its associative characteristics relating to illicit and salacious content may not truly be representative of the period.
The Boom of Yellow provides a fashion in itself, rather than a debate. The reader is likely to be overwhelmed by Gallienne’s invocation of yellow, yet Gallienne repeatedly turns about-face with regards to whether or not yellow is pleasant or disagreeable in relation to its qualities. It seems that it is through this compilation of complex sensation that the reader is left in a bewildered state over the conclusion of the nature of yellow. The essay itself is merely a stream of consciousness that reflects the nature of a trend itself, which results in a satirical approach that leaves a shallow and depthless conclusion. This inconclusive resolution evokes a sense of frivolousness with regard to Aestheticism and Decadence—Gallienne has purposely offered a meaningless argument that is without a conclusion.
Gallienne employs the genre techniques and modes of Aestheticism and Decadence to satirize such movements. There are comparisons to thematic aspects of innocence and the grotesque, tone and mood are related to incompleteness and nostalgia, and the essay’s imagery centers around transience and nature as artifice. Likewise, Gallienne engages with aesthetic and decadent literary techniques that emphasize brief moments of intensity and sensation, profound insight and epiphany, juxtaposition and contrast of standardized beliefs that the speaker opposes, and extensive use of allusions for mere effect. The purpose of emphasizing these literary devices and techniques within Gallienne’s satirical essay is that such qualities attempt to display and subvert a frivolity within the movements of Victorian Aestheticism and Decadence.