Silver has represented the devious actions of Judas and gleaming armour that’s now rusted. Kelly Grovier looks at the complex history of a shade that can bedazzle as well as tarnish.
Silver is the shiftiest of colours. It never knows if it’s coming or going. We give silver spoons, beakers and bangles at the start of life to commemorate a newborn’s arrival into the world, while at the same time silently dreading the inevitable silvering of our hair as we fade out into old age. Silver may be forward-looking and futuristic in its space-age sartorial sense, yet it remains forever wistful in its nostalgic stare backwards into the past in the mottled sheen of vintage photos. Silver is never now, but always yesterday and tomorrow.
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Reflective yet guarded, silver is as elusive as it is evocative. Across cultures, continents and centuries the colour has served as code for a secret reality only the imagination can descry. Esoteric talk of silver threads and silver cords runs through both Vedic and Kabbalistic teachings. The seventh and highest of the coloured stories of the ancient and now fragmented Babylonian ziggurat, Etemenanki – thought by some to be the prototype for the story of the Tower of Babel – is silver and was dedicated to the moon. To occultists, like the poet William Butler Yeats, who sang of stars “dancing silver-sandalled on the sea”, the colour is the very melody of the sleepless soul.
Since antiquity, artists have seized upon silver’s evasive verve, keen to tap into its metallic mysteries. Silver flasks, jars, and tureens, marooned amid heaps of overripe fruit and flowers, glint back at us like shipwrecked vessels from a million meditative natures mortes, symbolising our being stranded in a strange and estranging world. From the 17th-Century Dutch artist Willem Kalf’s Still Life with a Silver Jug (1655-60) to the crumpled beauty of Cornelia Parker’s contemporary installation Thirty Pieces of Silver (1988-89) – which consists of over a thousand teapots and trombones, candlesticks and cutlery, steamrolled and bundled into 30 levitating clusters of precious junk – the colour has proved indispensable to the inscrutable weave of art history.
Knowing it will always run second to gold in the fleeting competitions of this world, silver has developed a psychological complex as a colour. Unlike gold leaf, which stays true over time, silver has a tendency to turn on you. The cold and clanking armour that once flashed dazzlingly from the three poplar panels that comprise Florentine painter Paolo Uccello’s resplendent depiction of the Battle of San Romano (the 1432 clash between Florentine and Sienese cavalries) has been blunted by oxidation over the centuries.
The burnished blaze of silvery gauntlets and helmets, cuisses and cowters, has slowly dulled itself to a dingy low. A scene that once seemed sharp and cutting-edge to contemporaries – futuristic in its polished shimmer – now feels murky and mired in the tarnish of history. Silver, the betrayer, sold its soldiers out.
Good as gold
In 1628, an aspiring Dutch artist by the name of Rembrandt van Rijn, still in his early twenties, wagered courageously that silver is trustworthy and could be as good as gold to the valuation of his own budding reputation. It paid off. In painting his extraordinary religious drama Judas Repentant, Returning the Thirty Pieces of Silver (finished in 1629), young Rembrandt scatters across the warm grain of oak floorboards in the foreground of his oil-on-panel a fistful of silver doubloons. Our eyes scramble to count the loose change and to measure the change of heart etched into face of the apostle who had brutally betrayed Christ for a jangle of cold coins.
A tour-de-force of mingled shine and shadow, Judas Repentant, Returning the Thirty Pieces of Silver was intended as a kind of calling card in the artist’s native town of Leiden to impress potential patrons who might be willing to part with their own cold cash for Rembrandt’s paintings. It worked. The constellation of silver coins attracted the attention of the Golden Age poet and composer Constantijn Huygens, who hailed Rembrandt as a genius whose talent surpassed even the artists of antiquity. The painting, often regarded as the artist’s first true masterpiece, soon caught the eye of the Prince. It would be the first of many royal purchases that helped establish the painter.
Elsewhere in 17th-Century Europe, silver was wrapping itself tightly around the emergent myth of another indisputable master. In Madrid, Diego Velázquez found himself carefully cocooning in silver threads those subjects he most admired. His glittery portrait of his patron, Philip IV of Spain, the so-called ‘Silver Philip’, is a mesmerising mesh of metallic finery that manages to glimmer with an aura of the King’s inner integrity and kindness rather than engulf him, as it might easily have, in repellent opulence.
Placed alongside Francisco Goya’s later full-length send-up of Philip’s 19th-Century successor, Ferdinand VII of Spain (a caricaturing canvas that drips with gaudy golds that hint at Ferdinand’s egregious ego), Velázquez’s portrait of Philip reveals the subtleties of silver as a colour of inner lustre rather than perishable worldly gleam.
Velázquez’s adoring portrait of Philip’s daughter, Infanta Margarita in a White and Silver Dress (1656), painted the same year as Las Meninas and mirroring Margaret Theresa of Spain’s pose in that more famous work, is further proof of Velázquez’s miraculous ability to alchemise warmth and affection from an ostensibly cold colour.
Shimmer and shine
And so the story of silver goes from age to age, generation to generation – a hue capable of echoing beyond its surface chill to a deeper brilliance. In demonstrating his conviction that the optical rhythms of line, form, and colour in painting were comparable to the invisible cadences of night music, James McNeill Whistler reached first for silver. His seminal Nocturne: Blue and Silver – Chelsea (1871) (his inaugural ‘nocturne’), relies for its hypnotic power on silver’s ability to pivot from a superficial chilliness in the here-and-now to an introspective incandescence that knows no time or place.
In Whistler’s painting, a ghostly fisherman who stands on the banks of Battersea, London, is all but vaporised into memory before our very eyes by a buried luminosity that embers deep below the dusky surface of air, water, and sand – elements that have melted into a single mystifying silvery substance.
Nor has the colour lost any of its lustre in the minting of Modern Art. Pop Artist Andy Warhol, who famously painted his studio (and hair) silver, reflected on the poignancy of the colour when he insisted that the pivotal 1960s were indeed “the perfect time for silver”. “Silver was the future,” he said, “astronauts wore silver suits. And silver was also the past – the silver screen – Hollywood actresses photographed in silver sets.”
In Warhol’s weird world of celebrity regard, everything worth thinking seems artificially shellacked with a silvery sheen. From his woozy Eight Elvises (1963) – in which a silkscreen shuffle of the pop icon, clad in cowboy garb and drawing a pistol, replicates itself like lab-grown cells in a Petri dish of silver solution – to his stark and unsettling serigraph Silver Car Crash (Double Disaster), created the same year, Warhol saw silver as the very colour of our inexplicable existence – the theme music that plays us in and plays us out.