Cultural Connections

Symbolic color has been used to deepen the significance of religious rituals and esoteric ceremonies for thousands of years, and certain colors elicit symbolic connections. In the West, white has long associations with purity, black with death, and red with blood. But however universal these symbolic associations may seem, metaphorical connections with color are rooted in culture and apt to change over time.

Carson Red on Buff bowl
Possibly made by ancestors of the modern Quapaw Tribe
Carden Bottoms, Yell County, AR
1600-1700 AD
Shell-tempered earthenware and mineral slip
4 ½ x 9 ½ in.
University of Arkansas Museum Collections


Cultural Connections:  What colors are seen in Native American pottery from the Southeast? 

Native Americans used color in a variety of media such as baskets, clothing, and rock art. Red, white, and black make up the three most common  colors in pottery from the Southeast. Red was of particular interest to Native Americans from this region,  and it was accessible and easy to use.  Color combinations which archeologists call “Nodena  Red and White” and “Carson Red on Buff” were  also of frequently used. Early potters knew how to repeatedly bring about a desired effect, and they mastered firing methods to produce certain color outcomes. This bowl’s buff color is the result of the manipulation of paste, heat, and oxygen during the firing process. Visible chipped areas on the bowl provide evidence that its clay core is charcoal gray (an indicator that the bowl was fired at a low temperature). By contrast, the bowl’s outer surface is buff, a result of its direct exposure to heat. Essentially—fire—along with an oxygen-rich environment, cleaned this bowl’s outer surface of its organic residues, transforming it from dark gray to a warm buff. The interior of this bowl has a motif comprised of nested “U” shaped bands alternating in red slip and buff surface. The surface was scraped to accentuate the red slip and create a cameo effect. This motif is repeated twice and linked to a red slipped band on the inside of the rim. The people who made this bowl are from a community who also created rock art in the hills overlooking the Arkansas River.

Effigy bottle or “head pot”
Possibly made by an ancestor of the modern Quapaw Tribe
Carden Bottoms, Yell County, AR
1350-1600 AD
Carson Red on Buff
Shell-tempered earthenware and mineral slip
8 ¼ x 23 ½ in.
University of Arkansas Museum Collections

Cultural Connections:
Who did this red-faced effigy represent?

Native American effigy vessels in the form of plants, animals, and people have been found at sites along the Mississippi River to our east and near the banks of the Arkansas River in the central part of the state. Effigies carry symbolism that archeologists continue to investigate. Bottles depicting the human head are often called  head pots,  and scholars have long speculated about these decorative vessels and the people they represented. It is not possible to say with certainty if they depicted friends or enemies of the maker.

One explanation goes beyond the literal to suggest that head pots may  represent a mythical being known as Red Horn, or “He Who Wears Human Heads  As  Earrings,” a culture hero and part of a great epic narrative. A  culture hero  is a mythological character who changes the world through inventions and discoveries. Recent archaeological studies show that some motifs appear  across  many media, including pottery vessels, rock art, engraved shells, woven baskets, and embossed copper. Archeologists posit a connection between motifs on pottery and those seen in rock art at nearby sites. Rock art found in Arkansas includes at least one example (the “head taker” pictograph) of a human-like being carrying an object that may have been a head.  It is possible that this pictograph represents an episode from the epic narrative of Red Horn or a similar mythical being. The repetition of symbols across media and throughout the landscape demonstrates that the use of motifs was not haphazard but intentional and meaningful.

Frock coat
Maker unknown
Owned by Captain Berna Blue
ca. 1861-1865
Atlanta, Georgia
34 ½ x 15 in.
Accession No: 2008.9
Arkansas Natural and Cultural Resources Council Grant Purchase ;

Cultural Connections: Why is Captain Berna Blue’s uniform different from Colonel Williams’ uniform?

At the onset  of the Civil War, many men arrived for war in bright, colorful costumes, but their  dress made them easy targets.  Even the officers’ golden lace and double-breasted buttons stood out in battle. As casualties mounted, the Confederate Adjutant and Inspector General’s Office issued General Order No. 9, on June 6, 1861, which laid out the proper “Uniform and Dress of the [Confederate] Army.” In this order, officers were ordered to wear “a tunic of gray cloth, known as cadet gray.” Cadet gray was a gray containing a heavy sea-blue pigment with a white thread cross-section. As the war progressed and it became increasingly difficult for the Confederacy to supply uniforms to its troops, men would simply dye whatever clothes they had gray or brown using nuts, leaves, and tree bark, a color that came to be known as butternut.

This handstitched Confederate uniform belonged to Captain Berna Blue of Marmaduke’s 18th  Arkansas Infantry. A special button hole attached the empty sleeve to the front of his uniform, as Blue’s right arm was amputated after suffering a wound during General Bragg's invasion of Kentucky in 1862. The coat’s material is wool, dyed the standard cadet gray. This uniform was most likely made in a factory in Atlanta, Georgia, after Blue’s exchange as a prisoner of war.














James Harrison Williams (1813-1892)
Samuel Shaver (1816-1878)
Oil on canvas
44 x 36 ¼ in.
Accession No: 91.91.1
Gift of David and Margaret England

Cultural Connections: Why is James Harrison Williams wearing a blue uniform?

At the outset of the Civil War, volunteers reported for duty dressed in state militia garb or other military costume that  represented  the  full  spectrum in color and in style.  Many wore what they brought from home, ranging  from  vivid holiday uniforms with contrasting colors and local militia gear to older United States blue uniforms.  Since many soldiers and officers had homespun, instead of factory-made, uniforms, colors often differed even  amongst men in the same regiment. The Confederate States gray, a steel blue color, was deemed the “ideal” gray by the government, but the color was eventually only used by officers.  Other soldiers  wore cadet gray or butternut  colored uniforms.

This portrait of James Harrison Williams depicts the colonel of the 3rd South Carolina Volunteer Infantry Regiment in what was probably his first uniform during the war.  By April 17th, 1861, months before the CSA government issued uniform orders, the 3rd SC reported for duty in Columbia, South Carolina, with Colonel Williams as their elected leader. While the date of this portrait is unknown, it depicts Williams donning his colonel’s uniform, with buttons  featuring  the South Carolina coat of arms up and down the breast. This jacket was painted a deeper blue than the standard cadet gray color.



Masonic apron
Belonging to George Alphonso  Worthen  (1816-1864)
Maker unknown
Likely Little Rock, Arkansas
ca. 1850
Paint on silk with cotton backing
19 ½ x 17 ½ in.
Accession No: 2016.32.1
Gift of Bill  Worthen

Cultural Connections: What is the most important color on this Masonic apron?

The ritual apron is the badge of a Freemason, the piece of regalia most essential to the individual Mason’s practice. Free masonry is not a religion, but rather a 300 year-old fraternal organization that teaches a system of ethics and self-improvement. The virtues of Free masonry are illustrated by symbols and veiled in allegory, but their superficial meanings are accessible through hundreds of books published on the subject. Many Masonic symbols illustrate moral interpretations of the stone mason’s traditional tools; the ritual apron is adapted from the full-length leather aprons worn by literal or  operative  masons, the historical builders of stone structures. Members of the modern fraternity are generally  speculative  Masons who are charged with building spiritual rather than literal edifices.

Throughout the centuries, white remained the most significant color on the Masonic apron, symbolizing purity of life and reminding its wearer to conduct himself with dignity. By 1800, many ritual aprons were embellished with Masonic symbols; early examples were often hand-painted or embroidered, and eventually printed versions were available, which could then be hand-colored. George A.  Worthen’s  apron is based very closely on the  Masters Carpet  design produced by engraver Amos  Dolittle  for Jeremy Cross’s 1820 publication, The True Masonic Chart, or  Heiroglyphic  Monitor, a guidebook to the non-secret practices of the brotherhood. The design on this apron was probably printed using a plate based on Amos  Dolittle’s  original engraving, then hand-painted using moist pan watercolors, which were available in Little Rock from purveyors of stationery like William E. Woodruff at the  Gazette  office as early as 1836.


Untitled,  Woman in a Yellow  Dress

Jenny  Eakin  Delony (1866-1949)
Paris or New York City
ca. 1890
Oil on canvas
29 ½ x 23 ½ in.
Accession No: 95.79.1
Gift of Irene Morse, Diane Vibhakar, and Len  Delony

Cultural Connections:  What is the meaning of the color yellow in this painting?

In Western cultures, yellow is frequently associated with happiness and the warmth of the sun, but just as often the color can suggest scandal, sickness, and fear. The last decade of the 19th century was known as the “Yellow Nineties,” an allusion to the yellow covers of salacious French novels. Stodgy Victorian attitudes began to loosen in favor of the French avant-garde; Van Gogh’s Sunflowers blossomed, and one of the era’s most famous writers, Oscar Wilde, was jailed for indecency.

In his 1870 ladies manual,  Color in Dress, George  Audsley  declared yellow as the color most closely associated with light, and said its effect on the mind was cheerful and bright. By the end of the century, shades of creamy butter and electric lemon became popular color choices for morning and day dresses, evening gowns, and seaside attire.The subject of this portrait is dressed in yellow silk with daffodils tucked into her hair, suggesting the arrival of spring. Her short bangs and a hint of rouge and lipstick indicate a very on-trend ensemble. Despite the availability of a variety of pigments by the end of the 19th century, Arkansas artist Jenny  Delony  limited her palette to a few tones, expertly working them into warm, subtle shades. A green earth background complements the creamy peach and pink tones in the young woman’s face, while the radiant yellow color of her dress appears to light the painting from within.