Throughout history, artists have used colors to evoke certain emotions or to emphasize a number of view-points and concerns. The color green is typically associated with Nature. Presently, as the concern about our environment is growing, the color green seems to be everywhere, not only as the latest fashion trend, but as a strong symbol of serenity and new beginning. As such, the color green has been voted the color of the year by Pantone. The particular shade of Greenery, a fresh and zesty yellow-green shade, is seen to present 2017 as the color which best reflects what is taking place in our global culture. Each year, the Pantone association searches for the shade which reflects the moods and attitudes of our planet. Defined as the shade which signals the immersion with the physical world, Greenery shade, a tone of green color, is a symbol of restoration and renewal. Seen as a dominant design choice, the shade is already used in urban planning, architecture and lifestyle. This green hue helps to illustrate the primary association most have with the color green pigments, that of nature, serenity and freshness. Yet, does the art history display only the positive attribution of the green color, or are there deadly secrets the color green hides?
The Symbolic Meaning of the Color Green
Since the beginning of time, artists, shamans and leaders used the earth pigments to produce various shades. As early as 40,000 years ago, the first pigments, a combination of soil, animal fat, burnt charcoal and chalk created a basic palette of five colors, red, yellow, black, and white. Since then, the history of color, such as the tale of the blue art pigment, reflects the history and the major discoveries of the world. For some, the trail of the blue pigment takes us into the representation of the entirely new world which forever remains out of reach, and enters the world of magic, and visionary art.
As much as the blue color is typically associated with the most spiritual, mysterious, and philosophical topics, the color green for various cultures is also the shade illustrating the divine and religious figures. In the Muslim world, the color green is strongly related to the Prophet Muhammad; in England the color has heroic meanings and it is connected to the stories of Robin Hood; in China, the color represents disgrace, while in Japan green signifies eternal life.
The green, considered as one of the most pleasing colors of the color wheel, also creates an atmosphere of serenity and calmness. Because of this, many architects and designers implement it in their projects, especially in interior designs of hospitals, for example.
The Other Side of the Color Green
Surprisingly, behind the veil of the peaceful symbolism and meaning, the history of the color green reveals a deadly fact. No other pigment in the history of art was considered as most poisonous. Connected to the death of Napoleon Bonaparte, prior to being banned, the color green decorated not only the walls, the household objects but some of the most innovative landscape paintings. Producing the deadly hue, named Scheele’s Green, the Swedish chemist Carl Wilhelm Scheele introduced the color to the art world in 1775. Soon, it took over the Victorian age, regardless of the fact that it was suspected by many to be dangerous for artists and patrons alike. The fact that this particular hue was used for the coloring of Bonaparte’s bedroom wallpaper forces many historians to believe that Scheele’s Green caused the revolutionary’s death in 1821. This particular hue connected the color green pigments and the toxic chemical arsenic. The deadly combination was replaced in the 19th-century with the mixture of copper and arsenic, which produced a more durable alternative of the color green shade. Many Impressionist artists, adoring the exploration of nature, used the new shade, named Paris Green in their production of fascinating landscape paintings. This particular shade, also toxic, for many is considered responsible for Paul Cezanne’s diabetes, and Claude Monet’s blindness. Not surprisingly, in the 1960’s the color was banned.
The Green Color as a Lifestyle
In the 19th-century, the color green supported the quest of many artists for the new aesthetic language. As a certain circle of the art’s society concerned itself with issues of beauty and sensuality, the color green entered homes of many English aristocrats. This color, as it reflected the natural world, was frequently used during the Art Nouveau period as well. Since nature was considered as a primary source of inspiration, green is found in most pattern designs, illustrations and decorations of both the walls and household objects of this time. During the Impressionism movement, the birth of en plein air technique, which defined the genesis of impressionism landscape, inspired artists to truly turn to nature. Yet, with the birth of the symbolism and fauvism movement, the understanding of colors changed and artists concerned themselves more to the presentation of their own impressions of the world.
Closely associated with nature, the color is also a symbol of certain lifestyles, and often a slogan for many organizations fighting for the preservation of our planet. Yet, above anything else, the story of this pigment, displays an interesting fact of the human nature, that for beauty in art many are willing to die.
Editors’ Tip:Green: The History of a Color
In this beautiful and richly illustrated book, the acclaimed author of Blue and Black presents a fascinating and revealing history of the color green in European societies from prehistoric times to today. Examining the evolving place of green in art, clothes, literature, religion, science, and everyday life, Michel Pastoureau traces how culture has profoundly changed the perception and meaning of the color over millennia–and how we misread cultural, social, and art history when we assume that colors have always signified what they do today.
- Finlay, V., The Brilliant History of Color in Art, Getty Publications, 2014
- Ball, P., Bright Earth: Art and the Invention of Color, Univ. of Chicago Press, 2003
- Gage, J.,Color and Meaning: Art, Science, and Symbolism, Univ. of California Press, 1999