Through the ages, artists have often used pigments made with dangerous components. But of all the colors, green may have perhaps the most poisonous past. This may seem surprising considering the hue has so many positive connotations!
From ancient Egypt’s association of green with regeneration and birth, to medieval monks’ use of the hue on illuminated manuscripts, the color has represented everything from health and prosperity, to the beauty of nature and life.
The Arnolfini Portrait by Jan van Eyck | Illuminated Manuscript, Florence, Italy
In the Middle Ages, green clothing was worn by merchants and bankers. In the famous painting The Arnolfini Portrait by Jan van Eyck, the bride is depicted in a beautiful green gown to symbolize the elevated status of her family. Green was also associated with fertility, and was often used for wedding gowns in the 1400s.
While green was highly sought after by artists, it was historically one of the most difficult pigments to produce. In 1775 Swedish chemist Carl Wilhelm Scheele invented a bright green hue that proved to be extremely popular, and was used in everything from paintings and wallpaper, to fabrics and toys. Unfortunately the pigment contained arsenite, a chemical compound containing arsenic, making it highly toxic.
There are reports in 19th century journals of instances of people falling ill from exposure to the pigment’s toxic vapors. Many historians believe that the wallpaper in Napoleon Bonaparte’s bedroom, colored with Scheele Green, may have caused his death.
Blooming Slumber Pano
Scheele Green was eventually replaced in the 19th Century by a new pigment called Paris Green, which was prized by French Impressionist painters who used it to create the lush landscapes of the time. Unfortunately, Paris Green, while being more stable than its predecessor, was also toxic. Some believe the use of the pigment was responsible for the maladies of artists like Cézanne and Monet, and it was finally banned in the 1960s.
Today the color green is seen as a symbol of renewal, and represents many positive attributes like sustainability in architecture and design, and social policies that support a healthy natural environment. It is considered a favorite color by many people, second only to blue, and is associated with vitality, freshness, calmness and peace.
Photography Leaves 065
Unfortunately, even with all of the advances in color technology over the years, green dyes and pigments can still be difficult to produce without the use of harmful chemicals. Several common shades of green in use today still contain toxic substances like chlorine, cobalt, and zinc oxide. But, despite its dark past, the color green continues to be associated with a wide range of positive connotations, such as health, life, and the natural world.
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