The term is from Old English brn, in origin for any dusky or dark shade of color. The first recorded use of brown as a color name in English was in 1000. The Common Germanic adjective *brnoz, *brn meant both dark colors and a glistening or shining quality, whence burnish. The current meaning developed in Middle English from the 14th century.
Words for the color brown around the world often come from foods or beverages; in the eastern Mediterranean, the word for brown often comes from the color of coffee; In Turkish, the word for brown is kahve rengi; in Greek, kaf, in Macedonian, kafeyev. In Southeast Asia, the color name often comes from chocolate: coklat in Malay; tsokolate in Filipino. In Japan, the word chairo means the color of tea.
Brown has been used in art since prehistoric times. Paintings using umber, a natural clay pigment composed of iron oxide and manganese oxide, have been dated to 40,000 BC. Paintings of brown horses and other animals have been found on the walls of the Lascaux cave dating back about 17,300 years. The female figures in ancient Egyptian tomb paintings have brown skin, painted with umber. Light tan was often used on painted Greek amphorae and vases, either as a background for black figures, or the reverse.
The Ancient Greeks and Romans produced a fine reddish-brown ink, of a color called sepia, made from the ink of a variety of cuttlefish. This ink was used by Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael and other artists during the Renaissance, and by artists up until the present time.
In Ancient Rome, brown clothing was associated with the lower classes or barbarians. The term for the plebeians, or urban poor, was "pullati", which meant literally "those dressed in brown".
In the Middle Ages brown robes were worn by monks of the Franciscan order, as a sign of their humility and poverty. Each social class was expected to wear a color suitable to their station; and grey and brown were the colors of the poor. Russet was a coarse homespun cloth made of wool and dyed with woad and madder to give it a subdued grey or brown shade. By the statute of 1363, poor English people were required to wear russet. The medieval poem Piers Plowman describes the virtuous Christian:
And is gladde of a goune of a graye russet
As of a tunicle of Tarse or of trye scarlet.
In the Middle Ages dark brown pigments were rarely used in art; painters and book illuminators artists of that period preferred bright, distinct colors such as red, blue and green, rather than dark colors. The umbers were not widely used in Europe before the end of the fifteenth century; The Renaissance painter and writer Giorgio Vasari (15111574) described them as being rather new in his time.
Artists began using far greater use of browns when oil painting arrived in the late fifteenth century. During the Renaissance, artists generally used four different browns; raw umber, the dark brown clay mined from the earth around Umbria, in Italy; raw sienna, a reddish-brown earth mined near Siena, in Tuscany; burnt umber, the Umbrian clay heated until it turned a darker shade, and burnt sienna, heated until it turned a dark reddish brown. In Northern Europe, Jan van Eyck featured rich earth browns in his portraits to set off the brighter colors.