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…

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