Deep into Green

National Gallery, London
Jan Van Eyck: The Arnolfini Wedding, circa 1435

About twenty years ago I found myself in Washington’s National Gallery and looking for a way to slow down. It was hours before I had to be anywhere else, and yet I’d grown so accustomed to moving fast that I now needed a way to stretch my time out, to make myself linger over and look more closely at the canvases I liked. At this distance it’s impossible to recover just where I was when I felt the need to pause, just what I was standing before. Giorgione? The Master of Flemalle?

I do, however, remember what caught my eye. It was a patch of deep and lustrous green, a green that seemed lit from within. In shade it lay halfway between grass and holly, though it had been used here to paint cloth and not plants, a bit of drapery on this saint or that. I liked that green, and spent the rest of the afternoon trying to hunt it down, moving back and forth between the Italian and early Netherlandish galleries. It seemed like a new color—I couldn’t remember that precise tone in earlier work, in Giotto, say, or in the few illuminated manuscripts I’d seen. Where had it come from? Who had had it first? I looked at green and I looked at dates, knowing that the sample was too small; I’d have found the problem easier if only I’d remembered my undergraduate art history. That depth of color required oils, and had therefore begun in the north.

It was an amateur’s exercise, a one-person parlor game. Nevertheless, it worked. I did slow down, and it taught me this lesson: color has a history and a technology. And that is the argument that for many years the French cultural historian Michel Pastoureau has been developing, first in specialized accounts of such things as heraldry or liturgical vestments, and now in a series of more wide-ranging—and widely translated—books.

The sumptuously illustrated Green is his third such volume, following those devoted to blue and to black, but he insists in the face of his own title that no color can truly stand on its own.1 Its social and symbolic meanings always hang on its use, on the particular way it is “combined with or opposed to” others, and to talk about green requires that one speak as well about “blue, yellow, red.” Each figures as an element in a system of signification whose terms change over time; and the corollary is that no color has either an absolute meaning or one determined by its presence in the natural world alone.

Trained as a medievalist, Pastoureau argues that the history of color is an “altogether more vast” subject than the history of painting, and this book’s concerns range from Latin etymologies to the green neon crosses that hang outside modern French pharmacies. Still, many of his examples do come from the world of art, and I’ll use one of them to pry open the complex of questions, issues, and associations on which his work depends.

Art historians have always argued about whether or not to see the woman in Jan Van Eyck’s Arnolfini Wedding as pregnant. Pastoureau has little doubt that we should, and points for evidence to her green dress—the same shade that had so drawn me in Washington. Green had been the color of hope from late antiquity on, when “newborns were sometimes swaddled” in it for luck, and in the Middle Ages it was often worn by marriageable young women. Hope can take many forms, however, and some miniatures put the color on pregnant women as well, conveying a sense of growth and expectancy that in this case at least doubtless does derive from the physical world.

So it seems logical, as Pastoureau writes many pages further on, that trash cans are often green, a bit of sympathetic magic against decay, for “green cleans, green refreshes, green purifies.” It means health, and it did so long before it became the name of a political party, “no longer so much a color as an ideology.” Yet growth implies change, change betokens instability, and green is in fact “an uncertain color,” ambiguous and at times even forked in its significance.

Those pharmacy signs suggest illness as much as health, and green has often functioned as the color of poison and disease; think of the pustular figures on the Isenheim Altarpiece, and even of that work’s dead Christ. We speak of certain greens as sickly in a way that has no parallel in talking of blue or red or black, and for that there might be a reason in the very chemistry of the color itself.

For this queasily lush and labile tint was once hard to make, as difficult to manufacture as it is omnipresent in the world around us. The early colorants were derived from earth or vegetable matter, but they did not dye fast or true, and with time they grew faded and mottled. Painters liked malachite, though it was expensive and tended to blacken; Veronese relied on green and yet also complained about it, wishing its pigments were “as good in quality as the reds.” And some greens, as Pastoureau writes, were literally poisonous. Many seventeenth-century dyeworks relied on a vivid copper derivate called verdet whose fumes, even on finished garments, could prove deadly; while a nineteenth-century tint called “Schweinfurt green” that was used in wallpaper and upholstery came laden with arsenic.

Of course we can also make green by mixing blue and yellow. Painters knew that long before Newton’s discovery in 1666 of the spectrum, and so did many dyers, though the structure of their industry militated against it; few of them had a license to dip in both colors. In the nineteenth century such mixtures did finally produce the greens that Veronese had dreamed of, and yet to Pastoureau that process also underlines an epistemological problem.

Before the seventeenth century, “green was always on the same plane with red, yellow, and blue.” Our own distinction between primary and secondary colors hadn’t yet been made, and green was “basic,” no matter how it was produced. After Newton it was in effect demoted; another mark of its uncertainty. For Pastoureau, however, any given use of a color is as historically contingent as that of language itself, and at this point we can return to the Arnolfini portrait.

The woman stands in her greenery next to a bed draped all in red. That may suggest passion, but put those connotations aside for a second, and remember instead that the spectrum now makes us think of red and green as contrasting colors, and so sharply distinguished that we use them as traffic signals. Yet the color sensibility of Van Eyck’s day and long after put them next to each other. They were complementary, not contrasting, and in defining this picture’s domestic space they do appear to work in harmony, heightening and brightening and strengthening each other. They chime. Or perhaps one might say that they marry.

I’ve slipped from one thing to another here as a way to convey the heterogeneity of Green’s concerns. Pastoureau has little interest in optics as such, or in the kinds of color theory associated with Goethe on the one hand and Josef Albers on the other. But he seems to take in everything else: the world of superstition and legend, the history of art and of costume, the chemical and advertising industries, the semiology of both sports and the street. One of the most surprising pages in Blue is devoted to the azure packaging of Gauloises cigarettes, while Black traces our ideas about the truth value of black-and-white all the way back to Gutenberg. In this volume Pastoureau notes that the first revolutionary cockade was a linden leaf that Camille Desmoulins stuck in his hat two days before the storming of the Bastille. If green had not also been the color of the reactionary Comte d’Artois the tricolor might never have been invented.

Neither Green nor its fellow books on colors have a strict through-line of argument. What they have instead is a guiding assumption: the history of color is indeed a history and not a kind of allegory in which each hue carries a fixed and single burden. In that sense all colors are uncertain, and not just green. Further installments are planned on yellow and red, and while Pastoureau’s emphasis does shift a bit from volume to volume, each of them has a similar structure. They draw their materials largely from Western Europe—from those societies about which he feels himself “competent to speak”—and move briskly from classical antiquity to the present.

Blue starts with an account of the color’s unimportance in ancient Greece, where it didn’t even figure in Aristotle’s account of the rainbow. Green notes that some terms for the color in both Greek and Latin are derived from the word for leeks. Such early claims function almost as a tale of origin, and Pastoureau then works in a series of loosely grouped short sections, episodes that trace each color’s shifting cultural valence. Few of these sections are more than five pages long, and they are all accompanied by utterly apposite and beautifully reproduced images: a drawing on green paper by Dürer; a mint-colored sign for the Paris metro and an image from a fifteenth-century manual for hunters; or an impossibly young Jane Fonda, dressed in tartan and lying on an emerald couch that turns her gold hair green. That photograph appears on the cover of the American edition as well as inside; the subtler if less arresting French jacket simply frames the word vert with different shades of the color itself.

These are books to look at. But they are also books to read, and though Pastoureau is rarely exhaustive he does prove continually suggestive. Some of the finest moments here distinguish between the different green knights of Arthurian romance. In the twelfth and thirteenth centuries such a figure is, well, green. He is a young man whose color is limited to his costume and “whose audacious and insolent behavior will disrupt the established order.” Still, such postulants want above all to be accepted, and aren’t finally condemned. The later green knight of the Gawain poet is a far more threatening figure, a man whose very skin bears that ambiguous shade, at once “terrifying and benevolent, violent and friendly,” and just a whim away from doing real damage. Pastoureau links him to der grüne Jäger (the Green Hunter) of Germanic folklore, to the “wild hunt” in which supernatural figures chase “side by side with the living”; a late echo of the tradition, he notes, can be found in Goethe’s “Erlkönig.”

Another chain of observations does even more to suggest the full range of Green’s inquiry. In the Renaissance the color’s chemical instability made it seem “false” and even treacherous, a “deceptive color, simultaneously appealing and disappointing.” As such, it became associated with games of chance or hazard; think of the green baize with which tables for cards or craps or pool are covered even now. The color here carries a symbolic charge that is inseparable from its use—gambling means green. It connotes luck, the ups and downs of a player’s fortunes, and it also suggests avarice. A sixteenth-century painting by Quentin Massys shows a money changer spreading his wares on a table covered by a verdant cloth, and in fact the Seven Deadly Sins had each their color. In early modern Europe pride was seen as red and black betokened anger, while in pictures the greedy Judas was often clad in green. In northern Italy, as Pastoureau writes, “dishonest debtors” might be clapped into the stocks wearing a cornuto verde, and bankrupts were later said to have taken “the green bonnet.”

Kupferstichkabinett, Berlin
Albrecht Dürer: Apostle, drawing on green paper, 1508

Other scholars have touched on aspects of Pastoureau’s project, most notably John Gage in his 1993 Color and Culture.2 But none of them approaches his range or indeed his prodigality, a range that makes Green and its companions seem stuffed with rarities and wonders, an attic of all the centuries, right up to Babar’s cheerful lime suit. Pastoureau began his career with a thesis on heraldic bestiaries, a subject that in the mid-1960s seemed so inconsequentially archaic that he had trouble getting it approved. He has since written about the place of pigs and bears in the European imaginary, on seals and medals and the history of stripes, and by now he can best be described not as a medievalist so much as a historian of symbolic systems, of the different ways in which we give form to our experience.3

In his book on stripes he refers to Roland Barthes’s 1967 The Fashion System, and we might think of his work in those terms, seeing these volumes as an attempt to lay bare the changing social mythology of this color or that. In doing so, however, Pastoureau has also stayed true to his scholarly origins. Heraldry recognizes just six colors: white, yellow, red, black, blue, and green. Black now includes white as its binary opposite, and with that qualification, those are the colors on which he’s chosen to work. Newton’s spectrum admits only four of them, but that’s a point at which our common experience may yet outpace physics itself.

We live in colors. They fill our waking moments, they form a part of our every apprehension of the visible world, and they govern many of the choices we make about the ways we define or express ourselves. It’s rare, though, to see ourselves as constituted by the reds and greens in our lives, and we often pretend that such things involve nothing more than the paint on our walls or the inconsequential choice of a tie. At times we may think of color as an aspect of the history of costume, of denim or gray flannel. That’s what the literary scholar John Harvey did in his 1995 Men in Black, long before there was a movie of that title. It’s harder to conceive of costume as an element in the history of color. And perhaps there’s a reason for that, though one that lies far deeper than we might at first suspect.

The epigraph to Green comes from the first chapter of Genesis, where green itself figures, in some translations, as the only color to be mentioned by name. The epigraph to Black is drawn, in contrast, from Wittgenstein, who wrote:

To answer the question, “What do the words red, blue, black, and white mean?” we can, of course, immediately point to things that are those colors. But our ability to explain the meaning of these words goes no further.

Scientific definitions won’t help us here. Knowing the wave-length of yellow tells us precisely nothing about what it looks like, and we almost invariably treat color as but an attribute of something else, as in the visual arts the Florentines always subordinated it to disegno. For colors remain impossible to conceive of apart from their embodiment, abstract nouns that really only function as adjectives, blue flower or green light.

Pastoureau’s work stands as a long wrestling match with the implications of Wittgenstein’s remark, and perhaps in the end he gets no further than anyone else in saying what a given color might be in itself. Yet he also suggests that that’s the wrong question. Individual colors find their being only in relation to each other, and their cultural force depends on the particular instance of their use. They have no separate life or essential meaning. They have been made to mean, and in these volumes that human endeavor has found its historian.

  1. 1

    Blue (2000), translated by Markus I. Cruse (Princeton University Press, 2001); Black (2008), translated by Jody Gladding (Princeton University Press, 2009). 

  2. 2

    John Gage, Color and Culture: Practice and Meaning from Antiquity to Abstraction (Little, Brown, 1993).  

  3. 3

    See in particular The Devil’s Cloth: A History of Stripes and Striped Fabric (1991), translated by Jody Gladding (Columbia University Press, 2001); and The Bear (2007), translated by George Holoch (Harvard University Press, 2011).