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Leprechauns, Martians and Napoleon – how green my culture now!

— December 2014

Article read level: Art lover

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Installing Traps at the Edge of the Forest Miniature from an illuminated manuscript of the Livre de la chasse by Gaston Phoebus, c. 1470-1475. Paris, bibliothèque Mazarine, ms. 3717, fol. 91 v°. ©Leemage/Selva

Do you like the colour green? Whatever your feelings, you will never see green quite the same way again

Green: The History of a Color by Michel Pastoureau, translated by Jody Gladding

Do we even remember when we learned that a combination of blue and yellow makes green – but when did the artists of Western civilization figure it out? Why are leprechauns and men from Mars both green? Could Napoleon have been done in by his favourite colour?

Michel Pastoureau reminds us that ‘for the historian...color is defined first as a social phenomenon, not as matter or fragment of light, still less as sensation’. In whatever historical period, he says, ‘perception is always cultural’. In prehistoric painting there is no green, but rather earthy colours; there were red and yellow tones long before green or blue. Murals in classical Greece and Rome employed green. If we think of Greek and Roman ruins as being brilliant white marble against a deep blue sky, we will have trouble imagining what those buildings and sculpture looked like in their heyday. Pastoureau remarks that ‘polychromy was excessive and covered almost everything’. 

For the Romans, green was associated with leeks and the barbarians of the north, who achieved very good dyes with birch bark, oak leaves, nettles and ferns. Nonetheless, the Romans managed to dye silk and cotton green, and in the first century AD under Tiberius Caesar there was a fashion for it in women’s clothing.

In Christian Europe colours were labelled good or bad, and green was always among the bad ones. Despite this, it was also a liturgical colour (introduced by Pope Innocent III in the 13th century) representing hope and life. In the Middle Ages and more recently there seems always to have been this confusing dichotomy in the concept of the colour green. It carried such contradictory baggage: first, it was the colour of springtime and hope and love, but also the colour of chaos and the malicious supernatural. Witches might be green. The Green Knights in mediaeval literature might carry a green shield and joust for the love of a lady, or they might be like the threatening figure in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, in which the knight is huge and literally green. The dominant colour at mediaeval tournaments was green (representing both love and chance), although it did not figure much in heraldry.

Green was the colour of the goddess Fortuna. Change, chance and destiny all had a green tinge, and according to Pastoureau that notion of green survives in the colour of gambling and chance on baize casino surfaces and billiard and table tennis tables.

Even now we speak of ‘little green men’ from Mars, but why exactly are they green and not some other colour? ‘Little purple men’ just doesn’t have the right resonance. Sprites, goblins and  ghosts were all green.

 The rich green gown in van Eyck’s Marriage of Arnolfini has puzzled art historians for years. Is the lady expecting a little Arnolfinino? Pastoureau says she definitely is, because green is exactly the colour to suggest growth and newness – and pregnancy. (Of course, there are also other clues in this clue-filled picture.)

During the Protestant Reformation green was thought a frivolous and immoral colour and therefore to be avoided. On the other hand, green was also the colour of nature, the work of the Creator. There’s that peculiar dichotomy again.

But there was another problem with green that had nothing to do with its connotations. It was difficult to create and it was liable to fading. You might grind up malachite to make a beautiful green, but it was very expensive. You might boil leeks, but the result could be a bit dull. You could use a copper compound, but it might destroy the material it was applied to and it might also be dangerously toxic. In the 19th century you might mix the recently invented Prussian blue and chrome yellow to achieve a rich green, but with time it could fade to a disappointing brown. Schweinfurt green enjoyed a vogue after its invention in 1814, but could have toxic effects, as it was composed of copper shavings dissolved in arsenic.

There was a persistent feeling that to mix colours was to take a shoddy shortcut; the authentic thing was to grind up something that was already green. Although it was well known by the 18th century that blue and yellow could be mixed to give green, no recipe has survived from the Middle Ages.

Pastoureau points out that we probably do not see the colours of the past in the way the original artists did, partly because the colours have altered over time and also because artificial light has changed so radically. Whereas green clothing and green pigment were seen by candlelight centuries ago, electric light affects our perceptions in a different way.

Nowadays we think of colours in terms of prisms or a colour wheel with primary and secondary colours. (Oddly enough, green is a primary colour in light – not divisible into component colours – but a secondary colour in pigment.) Before Newton and the discovery of the colours inherent in light, colours were ranked in a very different order from white to black: white, yellow, red, green, blue, purple, black. But, says Pastoureau, why rank them in any order? A question that intrigued thinkers in the 17th century was the number of primary colours needed to create all the others. Painters and dyers had discovered empirically that certain colours, if mixed, would yield new colours, so perhaps that was taken to indicate that there was a system behind it all. Before Newton, black and white were considered primary colours, so you can see their problem.

Fashions came and went. In the 18th century in most of western Europe green was the colour worn by commoners and the peasantry. There was a long-standing theatrical superstition in France that green was unlucky; the legend was that Molière had died onstage while wearing a green costume. By the end of the 18th century, however, green was back in favour, first for upholstery and then for clothing, although ladies in high society were reluctant to wear it because in candlelight green tended to look an unflattering brown.

Michel Pastoureau reveals numerous fascinating titbits – such as the fact that Goethe’s unfortunate hero Young Werther, who wears a blue morning coat and yellow breeches, was responsible for a craze for blue jackets all over Europe in the last quarter of the 18th century. Can that be part of the reason that to this day blue is the favourite colour of around 50 per cent of Europeans? Before the 18th century, it was apparently red. Green is now the second favourite with red a distant third.

Napoleon’s favourite colour was green, but that may have been his undoing, quite apart from Waterloo. There is evidence that his body contained arsenic, but how did it get there? Pastoureau has solved the mystery. He explains that in Napoleon’s residence on St Helena many rooms were decorated in green using Schweinfurt green, and the arsenic in the dye, when exposed to South Atlantic humidity, evaporated and produced toxic fumes. ‘If he really was poisoned, it was not by his English guards or by any of his enemies or companions, but probably by the arsenic vapors released by tapestries, fabric, leather, and paintings’.

Several figures in history apart from Napoleon, such as Nero, Goethe and the Empress Eugénie, are on record as having preferred green to all other colours. But some people have hated it. Schubert had a phobia about it, Kandinsky detested it, and Queen Victoria couldn’t abide it. Whether green is your favourite colour or far from it, it seems that you are in illustrious company.

Green: The History of a Color  by Michel Pastoureau, translated by  Jody Gladding is published by Princeton,  2014.  240 pp., 110 colour illus, $35.00 £24.95.  ISBN: 978 0 691 15936 2


Sarah Lawson
Freelance writer and translator

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