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The Republic of Color

The Republic of Color: Science, Perception, and the Making of Modern America

Michael Rossi
University of Chicago Press
330 pp.
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The Republic of Color by Michael Rossi is an intriguing look at the history of and current way we conceive of color. Rossi, a historian at the University of Chicago, reveals how the concept of color entered human consciousness, the scientific rigor and competition that was part of defining it, how it is used to define culture, and how it has been used as a tool to determine the suitability of individuals for a variety of pursuits, from employment to entertainment.

The book begins in the late 1800s, when people from New York to Paris were discussing color after the publication of Modern Chromatics. In that book, physicist Ogden Rood highlighted a fundamental unknown at the time, questioning whether colors “belong to their objects, to their visual subject, or more truly to the concurrence of both.” Experts across a variety of fields—from physicians to photographers, psychologists to philosophers— were debating this very question, and the healthy competition and cross-fertilization brought new ideas and discoveries.

In 1913, an International Commission on Illumination (CIE) was established and charged with defining standards of lighting. The CIE defined what it termed the “standard observer”—a color-mapping function, based on experiments with several observers—that is the basis for all instrumental color measurement and made it freely available. The groundbreaking method of color standardization is still used today.

Rossi reveals how the complexities around color perception can be used to limit access to professions, leading the reader into a discussion about organizations and policies that use color to restrict or grant access. Before the science of color blindness was even fully understood, for example, color blindness testing was used in the transportation industry, in medicine, and even in accounting.

As policy-makers funded work to standardize color, researchers approached it from a variety of perspectives. “Does color evoke sensations or feelings?” some asked. “Do people experience color the same?” wondered others. How do language and culture affect color perception? Rossi carefully describes how such questions were posed and how the theories that arose from them were tested.

Ultimately, this book does a beautiful job of weaving together the way the different color sciences have made a cultural impact throughout history.

About the author

The reviewer is at the Department of Neurology, UCLA Medical Center, Los Angeles, CA 90095, USA.