Green, history of a colour.

What does green evoke to you? Nature? A political movement? Permission (with red as its contrary)? Islam? Is this colour positive or negative? Reassuring or alarming?
None of these questions has an easy answer: like all colours, green has a long history, complex and fascinating.

(This post was translated from the original in French: Vert, histoire d’une couleur)

How antiquity invented green

Just like blue, green rarely appeared in Greek texts. That is not a surprise: the vocabulary for colours was poor and inaccurate at the time. The same word could be used for colours that today seem quite different: glaucos, for example, may designate green, blue, gray and even some variations of yellow... It was not until the Hellenistic period (ie: after Alexander the Great) that a word unambiguously describes the colour of leeks… Green was born.

Unlike Greeks, Romans distinguished very well green from other colours, they called it virilis, derived from vir a root that is particularly fertile since it gives Latin words signifying branch, penis, virility, bravery ... However, with rare exceptions such as the taste of Nero for the emerald green, this colour was not popular: green was associated with Germanic barbarians and plebs.

An ambiguous colour in the middle Ages

In the early middle Ages, green gained respectability. Pope Innocent III, in his treatise on the Mass, made it a liturgical colour, the colour of ordinary ceremonies while red and white were for holidays and black for mourning. In the East, according to the tradition, Mohammed had a particular taste for green, his descendants (most noticeably Fatimid) adopted it as dynastic colour and ultimately it became the sacred colour of Islam at the end of Middle Ages.
Green was also seen as courteous and chivalrous: knights tournaments took place in a green environment, first in the countryside and later in cities where greenery was recreated. In addition, it symbolized young love, before the red of passion.

But these positive perceptions were not without nuances. Green is also the colour of the devil and his creatures: dragons, crocodiles, snakes, toads... are green. Witches as well: green eyes, and sometimes green skin, were indications of witchcraft. These beliefs still persist today: one in ten persons admits being afraid of the colour green or thinking it brings bad luck.

During the Renaissance, green is rare in everyday life. Like during the Roman area, it was considered as the colour of the people, commoners, peasants... Alceste, the misanthrope imagined by Molière and Don Quixote have in common to wear green ribbons but it is merely to display their contempt for fashion and show how little they regard the judgement others may have on them. One of the few historical characters that expressed taste for this colour was the king of France Louis XIII… in spite of Richelieu's efforts to change his mind.
The misanthrope wearing his green ribbons
This bad reputation may be related to the difficulty of obtaining and stabilizing green in painting and dyeing. An unstable colour, green logically symbolized what is changing or unpredictable: childhood, love, gambling... In addition, green pigment was often obtained from verdigris, a toxic copper oxide: at that time, wearing green clothes could actually bring bad luck!

Progressive rehabilitation in the eighteenth century

It the pre-Romantic period green came back in favour and it began to be identified as the colour of nature. This period saw a revival of landscape painting, as a result chemists learned to prepare beautiful greens for painters and, gradually, to use them in other areas such as furnishing and clothing. Green was especially appreciated by Napoleon, and his taste for the “vert empire” is perhaps the origin of the arsenic found in the Emperor’s hairs as draperies and wallpapers were often coloured with Paris green, a compound of copper and arsenic.

Green was even very close of becoming the colour of the French Revolution. On 12 July 1789, when Camille Desmoulins called the crowd to rebellion, he attached a linden leaf to his hat and green rosette quickly becomes the rallying symbol of insurgents. But, as they made their way to the Invalids to seize weapons, they learned that green was the colour of the brother of Louis XVI, a convinced counter-revolutionary that ultimately became king during the Bourbon restoration as Charles X. And green was abandoned by revolutionaries even before being fully adopted…
However, green remains as a symbol for fresh ideas and freedom. The use of red for ban and green for permission appears in the Lighthouses system at that time.

It is still possible to find traces from the negative meanings of the middle Ages during the nineteenth century. The green colour remained suspicious especially among women - during the Belle Époque prostitutes often wore green. Artists’ feelings were also mixed: impressionists frequently painted outdoors and used green without retained but it is rare among abstract painters. Kandinsky, for example, hated that colour.

It was not until the late twentieth century that green gained its current meaning and becomes almost unequivocally positive. With the development of ecological ideas, green acquired a new political dimension that he almost never had before. Nowadays, using green in ads or logo always announces an intention related to sustainable development. It is also a symbol of health (in France, green cross is the symbol of pharmacies) and fate (casino’s tables are usually green).
Today, green is the favourite colour of one in six persons, which puts it behind blue but far ahead of other colours.

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