Strange as it may seem, the Roman emperor Nero might have felt quite at home in the Emerald City. Apparently he liked to observe the combats of his gladiators through lenses made from cut emeralds, believing their colour to be calming. Visitors to the metropolis in L Frank Baum’s 1904 novel The Wizard of Oz also wore green glasses, but only because they were compelled to do so. The eyewear concealed from them the fact that, while the walls of the city were indeed a dazzling green, the rest of it was not. Like the powers of the Wizard himself, this was a cruel illusion.
Today we are likely to see emerald in a more positive light. Deep green shades are hugely popular in interiors and fashion for their cool elegance. We know that greens are psychologically soothing, and a good choice for healing environments such as hospitals. But nevertheless, the colour has a complex and at times disturbing history.
It all started, of course, with nature. Emerald gems have long been revered for their supposed healing powers and as a symbol of fidelity. The abundance of green in the natural world means that it has always been associated with youth, health and fertility. ‘Green Man’ sculptures, their faces a cluster of leaves, were carved onto medieval buildings as a symbol of spring’s rebirth.
Like red, green was also a colour of wealth. In the 1430s, when Jan Van Eyck painted his Arnolfini wedding portrait, he gave the bride a gown of a vivid emerald hue, so lavishly constructed that she is forced to lift fold upon fold of costly fabric upon her belly. She may look pregnant, but she isn’t; rather she is a walking advertisement for the wealth of her merchant husband. A medieval viewer would have understood the green dress as a marker of middle-class prosperity, much as red was linked with noble status.
Where did the cracks begin to appear in green’s image? Perhaps it was religion. As the medieval era waned, the Protestant church became increasingly suspicious of the colour, which was loved by tree-worshipping pagans. Fearsome dragons, witches and sprites were depicted in bright green; even the Devil himself, when he was not wearing his customary red skin. Shakespeare made his contribution, too, immortalising jealousy as ‘the green ey’d monster’ in Othello.
Renaissance painters also found green to be problematic. They only had natural pigments to rely on, such as copper-derived verdigris and the mineral malachite. Most were unstable and tended to turn black or brown. To coax a green such as Van Eyck’s to life, it was necessary to apply various shades in layers, separating each with varnish so that they would not react with one another. Not even the masters always succeeded: Leonardo’s Mona Lisa, for example, once wore a bright green dress, but who could tell now?
A seeming reversal of fortune came in 1814, when chemists in Schweinfurt, Germany, invented emerald green as we know it. Their brilliant new shade made it possible to colour fabrics, paints and wallpapers as brightly as a tropical bird’s plumage. A welcome antidote to the polluted greys of the Industrial Revolution, Schweinfurt green was instantly adored. There was only one problem. Made of a mixture of verdigris, vinegar and arsenic, it was lethal. In order to understand how it spawned a colour craze that swept the nation, one has to consider the Victorians’ perverse attitude to arsenic. On the one hand they were terrified of murder by arsenic, the cheapest household poison around. On the other, its inclusion in everyday items such as soap and toothpaste was regarded as normal.
A fashionable drawing room in the 1860s would have been festooned with all kinds of emerald trappings, right down to the gaily painted, arsenic-laced children’s toys on the floor. Mysterious deaths began to occur, occasioned by arsenic vapours produced in damp green rooms; it was rumoured that Napoleon, exiled to the humid island of St. Helena, had been poisoned by his green wallpaper.
Leaving the house wouldn’t save you, either. In 1862 Punch magazine published a cartoon entitled ‘The Arsenic Waltz’, depicting two skeletons clad in emerald finery at a ball. It was at this time that the phrase ‘drop-dead gorgeous’ was coined. Green dress fabrics were examined and found to contain enough pigment to kill several people, poorly bound to the fibres. As the wearer moved, clouds of poisonous dust wafted all around them.
By the close of the 19th century, fashion had moved on. Absinthe green coloured the imagination of the Art Nouveau era; Modernism favoured primary colours and monochrome. It was not until the 1950s that green made a triumphant return to clothing and interiors. After a devastating world war, the colour was a symbol of new beginnings. Ever since this time, green has retained its link with positivity: the environmental movement has put rich, natural shades centre stage and made them synonymous with healthy ways of living. Once again, green is the colour of paradise.
Words by Amy Bradford.