Kevin Jackson

When Blue Met Yellow

Green: The History of a Color


Princeton University Press 240pp £24.95 order from our bookshop

For a relatively short book, Michel Pastoureau’s thought-provoking Green: The Story of a Color is crammed with so many intriguing facts and displays such wide and deep learning that it would be churlish to dwell at length on those aspects of his subject that he conspicuously neglects. Still, a spot of churlishness does no one much harm and can be a handy way of coming to a just verdict. (Does that word perhaps contain vert? Alas no – it comes from the Latin veredictum.)

Few scholars escape national bias altogether, and French savants in particular seem to have a tendency to assume that the way things are ordered in their own country is the way they are ordered everywhere. Irritable Anglophone critics have pointed out this tendency in the work of, among others, Claude Lévi-Strauss, Michel Foucault and Pierre Bourdieu; and though the erudite Professor Pastoureau claims the history of the entire Western world from the Greeks until now as his purview, French writers, painters and fashions are far more generously represented than those of any other nation.

But the history of green looks rather different if considered from our green and pleasant land (Blake does not get a look-in), or indeed from the Emerald Isle (Ireland rates a single mention). Pastoureau does mention Shakespeare in passing, but he says nothing of the Bard’s ‘Green World’ – a major theme of Shakespearean criticism around the middle of the last century, and the inspiration for Brian Eno’s album Another Green World – or of his manifold uses of the word to signify states of mind: ‘green in judgment’ (Antony and Cleopatra), ‘making the green one red’ (Macbeth), ‘green-eyed monster’ (Othello).

British poetry and folklore are also ignored. You will search in vain for Marvell’s green thoughts and green shades or Dylan Thomas’s ‘force that through the green fuse’ or Keats’s ‘green and livid spot’ or Joyce’s ‘snotgreen … scrotumtightening sea’. Nor will you find ‘Green Grow the Rushes, O’ or ‘Ten Green Bottles’ or ‘The Wearing of the Green’. There are no village greens, no Green Jackets or Green Berets, no Green Man (save for a passing reference in a section about the great medieval poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight), no green belts, no Green Welly Brigade, no green sickness in young girls (‘Out, you green-sickness carrion!’ – Romeo and Juliet); no theatrical green rooms; no green fingers or, as Americans have it, green thumbs; no Oscar Wilde and his green carnations (in the 1890s, green was a coded signal of Uranian tastes or sympathies). One particularly sad omission is ‘green ink letters’, the old journos’ term for correspondence from eccentric or downright insane readers.

Enough churlishness. For all its parochial limitations, Green is in most respects a splendid work, vastly informative and beautifully produced. Virtually every other page has a large, sharply printed colour image, some familiar (Cézanne’s apples; Van Eyck’s The Arnolfini Portrait, in which the bride’s green gown declares her happy condition of pregnancy) and some relatively little known (a Mughal miniature representing al-Khidr, the ‘green man’ sorcerer of Islamic tradition). But it is far more than just a thinking reader’s coffee-table book.

Pastoureau is one of the world’s leading historians of colour, and Green continues a long march through the spectrum which he began with Blue: The History of a Color (2001) and Black: The History of a Color (2009), among other works. As with his earlier books, Green has been developed from his seminars at the Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes, and it has the same intention as its precursors: to chart in chronological order the paradoxical development of a colour throughout history, noting the changes in meaning and feeling that arise as conventions wax and wither.

In this volume, Pastoureau begins with the question – famously raised by Gladstone – of whether the ancient Greeks could see green. He proceeds through the centuries by way of the greenback and little green men from Mars to today’s green politics. Most periods have looked on the colour fondly, as we tend to nowadays, but it has also been associated with the devil, with dragons and other dangerous reptiles, and with death and decay.

A polymath, Pastoureau draws on physics (Isaac Newton played an important role in giving green a new status in the 17th century), the chemistry of dye production, technology, heraldry, religion, economics, fashion, decoration and politics as well as more conventional art history. Some of the facts he has unearthed are delightful. The all-but-universal convention that red means stop and green means go seems to have developed from a signal system used by ports in the Baltic in the late 18th century. French people refer to a particularly cheery shade of green as ‘Babar Green’, after the suit worn by the affable elephant in the once-popular picture books. The French also know that the character of Alceste in Molière’s Le Misanthrope appears dressed in green ribbons; Pastoureau explains why.

He is also very good on larger subjects: the reasons why green became the colour of Islam (which include the need for the faithful to have a colour to define themselves with against the white and red of the Crusaders) and on the traditional association of green with money, which antedates the production of green banknotes. It is an immensely rich subject, and Michel Pastoureau tackles it with earnestness, subtlety and verve. A personal note: I once toyed with the idea of writing a book on the theme myself and must confess that Pastoureau’s book is immeasurably superior to the one I had planned. If only there were a colour that signified envy.

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