The History of the Color Green: Poison and Paradise

Green color liquid in poison glass vial with smoke and skull

A color that’s as old as the trees, green has been mesmerizing humans for eons. Fittingly, the word green is closely related to the word “growan” which means “to grow” in Old English. Green is the color we associate with growth, vegetation, renewal and life. While it has typically been associated with nature throughout history, the color green has also held the spotlight for having special significance in various kingdoms, empires, religions and societies.

While you might expect the color that gives the jungle its lushly colored canopies to be a little wild, the history of green comes with some unexpected surprises. According to some historians, the color green is actually responsible for the death of Napoléon Bonaparte. What’s more, killing an emperor isn’t even the most exciting secret there is to know about green. Take a look at the tangled, untamed history of the color green.

An Introduction to Ancient Green

Verdigris covered green historic statue of the Roman emperor Constantine

To understand the history of green, one must understand how green is made. Green is only a primary color of light, not when we are talking about colored pigments. The only way to create green from scratch is to mix blue and yellow.

In ancient times, Egyptians used green pigments derived from natural minerals like malachite. The Egyptians strongly associated green with rebirth and regeneration. However, preserving green pigment proved difficult for the Egyptians because most of their green hues eventually turned black after being applied to the walls of caves. For the Romans and Greeks, there was the invention of an artificial pigment with a blue-green shade called verdigris that was created using corroded copper. Verdigris was used abundantly on coins and mosaics throughout the ancient world. Even medieval monks sprinkled in some verdigris to color their sacred manuscripts.

Once chemists discovered how to engineer colors during the 18th century, the world was soon introduced to luxurious hues ranging from emerald to viridian.

Green: A Color That Was Hard to Grasp for Early Artists

Green colored oil paint brush strokes isolated on white background

While green is abundant in nature, trying to recreate this pigment for use on canvas has been quite a task throughout history. In fact, green is commonly known as the “poisonous pigment” due to the fact that the difficulty of producing this color inorganically led to some very dire situations.

A chemist from Sweden named Wilhelm Scheele concocted a bright hue of green in 1775 that turned out to be downright deadly. At first, the color that was known as Scheele’s green was a popular replacement for the lackluster mineral-based and vegetable-based dyes that came before it. It was so popular that it was used on paintings, fabrics and toys for children. However, what people didn’t realize was that a toxic compound called arsenite (the most toxic form of arsenic) that Scheele used to attain his vivid green hue was deadly.

People first began to suspect that this particular hue of green was concealing a nefarious secret when there was a phenomenon of women in green dresses becoming sick. Next, people started to notice that children in green rooms began to fall ill. It turns out that toxic vapors from green-dyed items were causing serious health problems. In fact, it’s even believed today that Napoléon Bonaparte ultimately died as a result of the toxic green wallpaper in his bedroom.

Within a few years, a shade called Paris green replaced Scheele’s green. This unforgettable hue was used by greats like Claude Monet, Paul Cézanne and Pierre-Auguste Renoir. However, the toxicity of the Paris shade turned out to have painful effects or even a deadly outcome on people using it. The shade was ultimately made illegal during the 1960s.

The Symbolism of Green Throughout Time

Green paradise with exotic waterfall and lake landscape

Throughout time, green has taken on many meanings. People today can appreciate the very fluid nature of green just by taking a moment to think of the things we associate this color with. In some cases, green is associated with health, harmony, nature and growth. However, we also associate green with sickness by describing someone’s face as “turning green” when they are sick to their stomach. Someone who is jealous is also described as being “green with envy.” Green is even a color of Christmas. Green is also a color closely associated with specific places. Everyone knows Ireland as the “Emerald Isle” due to its abundant green landscape. Green is also associated with the idea of good luck when placed in the context of a four-leaf clover.

During the Middle Ages, green was the color worn by bankers and merchants. In Chinese culture, green is associated with the female “yin” energy. In Islam, green has a strong connection to the idea of paradise due to the fact that the afterlife is expected to be filled with lively, lush green vegetation. Several countries throughout Asia and the Middle East link green with youth, health, fertility, renewal and prosperity.

Green’s Greatest Role Is Yet to Come

Illustration of an eco friendly environment in paper art style

As humanity moves toward a greater awareness of the need to preserve the planet from harm, green is taking on what may become its most important meaning. The term “green” is now synonymous with eco-friendly, planet-preserving choices and actions. It represents both the act of saving and the thing that needs saving. Everybody knows what it means when someone says they are “going green” to help the environment. Ultimately, that means that the color green may just become the most important color of all time because it will spread the message to save all the colors of the planet.