Accessible Art History
History of Color: Green
Welcome back to the Accessible Art History blog! In this post, we will be continuing our journey through the history of color! Now that we’ve moved through the primary colors, it’s time to tackle the secondary ones. Kicking things off will be the color green. Long the symbol of abundance, green is a color with many layers and a rich history. So to learn more, keep on reading!
Green is a combination of two primary colors: blue and yellow. Fascinatingly, in some languages, the word for blue and green is the same! Because of its prevalence in nature, green was one of the earliest colors that humans tried to recreate for their own use. But, it was more difficult than red or yellow.
In Ancient Egypt, green was the color for rebirth and regeneration. This is because of the papyrus that would grow every year after the Nile flooded and created richly fertilized fields. To express their thankfulness for this process, Ancient Egyptian artists would grind malachite, a copper mineral to create pigment. It was used liberally in tomb decoration but eventually fell out of use. This is because it oxidized black over time.
Ancient Romans also used copper to create green pigment. They would soak copper plates in wine to create verdigris - a pigment that is the color of patina on old metal. (a light, cool green.) Verdigris was used in many different forms of art including painting and mosaics. This tradition continued into the medieval period where monks would use this pigment to paint scenes in illuminated manuscripts.
During the Renaissance, plants began to be used to make pigment, but they didn’t last as long in art and faded easily. Green was often worn by members of the developing middle class (bank, landed gentry, merchants, etc) This is because the other most common color, red, was reserved for nobles and royalty and the lower classes couldn’t afford expensive clothing dye.
In 1775, Swedish chemist Carl Wilhelm Scheele invented a new way to create green pigment. It was made with arsenite, a chemical compound of arsenic. However, this made it as deadly as it was vibrant! This pigment was used in many things from art, to curtains, clothing, and even children’s toys and sickened people for decades. In fact, it has even been put forth as the cause of Napoleon’s death because the wallpaper in his room in exile contained Scheele’s green.
At the end of the 19th century, a similar pigment called Paris Green was created. It was just as pretty and just as toxic! Due to its vibrancy, this color was especially popular with the Impressionist artists. (Hence the name “Paris”). This is likely because this movement was inspired by painting outside in plein air. Sadly, because of toxicity, it has been theorized that it led to Monet’s blindness and illnesses in other Impressionists artists. It was eventually discontinued in the 1960’s.
Today, there are three main green pigments: Pigment Green 7, Pigment Green 36, Pigment Green 50. The first two utilize chlorine for color, making it poisonous if ingested. This just goes to show that green is a dangerous color, in fact, it’s often even considered the MOST dangerous color!
As I mentioned at the beginning of the blog post, green symbolizes many things. Firstly, and a bit surprisingly, green has come to be associated with abundant life. This is likely because it is the color of grass, trees, and plants. It brings a sense of peace and the pleasure of fresh air.
Another concept that green has come to symbolize is money. In America, green is the color of currency. It represents success and material culture. Spinning off of this idea is the fact that green can also represent jealousy and envy. This idea is often attributed to Shakespeare in his play, Othello where he used the phrase “green eyed monster”.
Finally, I think that it is interesting to note that green is an incredibly important color in Islam. This is because it was used by Muhammad as the color of his robe and banner. Today, many Islamic countries use green in their flags.
Green, the color of wealth and nature, has a fascinating history in society. And who knew it was so deadly?!
Tomb painting of the gardens of Amon at the temple of Karnak, from the tomb of Nakh, the chief gardener. Early 14th century BCE. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.
Ancient Roman fresco of Flora, or Spring, from Stabiae (2nd century CE). Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.
The Arnolfini Portrait, 1434. Jan van Eyck. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.