Gray Is the Color of Truth

André Gide? Stuart Henry? McGeorge Bundy? Jacques de Biez? W. C. Brownell? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: Many demand simple answers to tangled questions. Yet, some topics never yield straightforward black or white answers. The French Nobel prize winner André Gide supposedly made one of the following comments:

The color of truth is grey.
Gray is the color of truth.

I have been unable to find a solid citation for Gide. This remark has also been ascribed to the U.S. foreign-policy advisor McGeorge Bundy. Would you please help?

Quote Investigator: The earliest match located by QI appeared in a “Scribner’s Magazine” essay in 1889. The literary critic William Crary Brownell credited the remark to French journalist and art critic Jacques de Biez. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

“Gray,” says M. de Biez again, “which is the color of the sky in France, is also the color of truth itself, of that truth which tempers the impetuosity of enthusiasm and restrains the spirit within the middle spheres of precise reason.” Nothing could more accurately attest the French feeling in regard to color—the French distrust of its riotous potentialities.

QI has not yet found substantive evidence supporting the attribution to André Gide. McGeorge Bundy did use the line in a speech in 1967. The spellings “gray”, “grey”, “color”, and “colour” have all appeared over the years. This adage has been difficult to trace and the earlier citations may be discovered by future researchers.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.




In 1893 Stuart Henry published an essay of art criticism in “The Contemporary Review”. The centrality of the color gray in France was the primary theme of the article: 2

The French are a gray people, who live in a gray metropolis, and in a gray country. Paris lies in a limestone region, and is built of gray stone…

The favourite colour in the French school of painting is gray, or, to speak paradoxically, the absence of colour. Gray was its general tone before the time of the Romanticists. They introduced variety of colour as appropriate of emotion.

The colorful paintings of Romantic French artists such as Eugène Delacroix challenged Henry’s theme. Hence, he classified the Romantic Movement as a temporary aberration:

Still, the colour on French canvases, as the influence of the Romantic school fades away, will become more and more intellectualised and subdued; and they will, doubtless, again, at no very distant day, be characterised by their grayness. For, to the French, gray is the colour of truth, ideality, and life itself. Their devotion to form and ordonnance, rather than to colour and romantic effects, is gray, and hence an intellectual trait.

The next month a writer in the French journal “Revue Bleue” noticed the article in “The Contemporary Review” and translated some of the text: 3

La couleur préférée des peintres français est le gris, ou, pour dire un paradoxe l’absence de couleur…

Pour les Français, le gris est la couleur de la vérité, de l’idéalité, de la vie même.

In 1922 “The Literary Digest” printed a short piece titled “The French Instinct for Art” that referred to the 1889 article by W. C. Brownell and reprinted the remark about truth: 4

‘Gray,’ says M. de Biez again, ‘which is the color of the sky in France, is also the color of truth itself

In 1967 McGeorge Bundy delivered a speech at the Cosmos Club of Washington D.C. At that time he was president of the Ford Foundation, and previously he had served as the U.S. National Security Advisor. Several newspapers reprinted excerpts of his address during which he presented a set of rules for debate on the topic of the Vietnam Nam war. The third rule discussed the elusiveness of truth: 5

My third rule may be the hardest of all. It is that gray is the color of truth. If one word more than another is fitting to Vietnam, it is the word “complex.” The origins of the struggle, its current shape, the implications of alternative courses, the relation of one act to another, the influence of time and space—not one of these is simple.

In 1979 the biography “Groucho” by Hector Arce used the adage as a chapter epigraph. André Gide who had died many years earlier in 1951 received credit” 6

The color of truth is grey.
André Gide

In 1980 the syndicated columnist Lou Boyd also credited Gide: 7

Was Andre Gide who said, “The color of truth is gray.” Heavy.

In 2011 an English language edition of “Feuillets D’Automne” (“Autumn Leaves”) by André Gide appeared. This edition included a supplementary section called “Selected Quotes” that included the adage: 8

The color of truth is grey.

The citation above has caused some confusion. However, QI has examined the 1950 English edition of “Autumn Leaves” and determined that the adage was absent. The phrase was simply added via an editorial decision to the 2011 edition and was not in the original main body of text. 9

In conclusion, QI would tentatively credit Jacques de Biez with the adage: “Gray is the color of truth”. However the first evidence was indirect. Biez was credited with a longer statement within an article by W. C. Brownell in 1889, i.e., Gray which is the color of the sky in France, is also the color of truth itself. The linkage to André Gide is weak and appeared after his death.

Image Notes: Painting of “Paris Street; Rainy Day” by Gustave Caillebotte circa 1877; accessed via Wikimedia Commons.

(Great thanks to Mardy Grothe whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Mardy’s latest excellent book is “Metaphors Be With You: An A to Z Dictionary of History’s Greatest Metaphorical Quotations”.)

Notes:

  1. 1889 February, Scribner’s Magazine, Volume 5, Number 2, French Traits — The Art Instinct by W. C. Brownell, Start Page 241, Quote Page 245, Column 2, Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York. (Unz)
  2. 1893 August, The Contemporary Review, Volume 64, The Gray and Gay Race by Stuart Henry, Start Page 294, Quote Page 295 and 296, Leonard Scott Publication Company, New York. (Google Books Full View) link
  3. 1893 Septembre 9, Revue Bleue: Revue Politique et Littéraire, Volume 52, Number 11, Section: VARIÉTÉS, Une race tombée en enfance, Start Page 348, Quote Page 349, Column 1, Bureau des Revues, Paris. (Google Books Full View) link
  4. 1922 February 11, The Literary Digest, The French Instinct for Art, Start Page 44, Quote Page 45, Column 1, Funk & Wagnalls Company, New York. (Google Books Full View) link
  5. 1967 May 28, Alexandria Daily Town Talk, The Great Debate on Vietnam: Bundy’s Ten ‘Rules’ by McGeorge Bundy, Quote Page B5, Column 2, Alexandria, Louisiana. (Newspapers_com)
  6. 1979, Groucho by Hector Arce, (Epigraph for chapter 15), Quote Page 479, Published by G. P. Putnam’s Sons, New York. (Verified on paper)
  7. 1980 July 2, The Honolulu Advertiser (Honolulu Star-Advertiser), Just Checking: Lou Boyd, Quote Page G12, Column 3, Honolulu, Hawaii. (Newspapers_com)
  8. 2011, Autumn Leaves by André Gide, Translated by Elsie Pell, French title: Feuillets D’Automne, Section: Selected Quotes, Quote on Unnumbered Page, Philosophical Library, New York. Distributed by Open Road Integrated Media, New York. (Google Books Preview)
  9. 1950, Autumn Leaves by André Gide, Translated by Elsie Pell, French title: Feuillets D’Automne, Quotation is absent, Philosophical Library, New York. (Verified with hardcopy)