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Green: The History of a Color

by Michel Pastoureau; Jody Gladding, Translator
Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ, 2014
240 pp.; illus., b/w & col. Trade, $35.00
ISBN: 978-0-691-15936-2.

Reviewed by Giovanna Costantini

To enter Michel Pastoureau’s most recent volume Green: The History of a Color in a series that includes Blue (2001) and Black (2009) is to step through the painted portal of a French château whose rooms contain some of the most revered artworks of European history imprinted upon our collective memory through color. Just as the building’s design reflects the values of a specific era, color encodes a history elicited through convention, association, and evocation. Confining himself to the relative cohesion of the European art historical tradition, particularly the French from classical antiquity to the nineteenth century, he chronologically explores multiple semiotic levels of the social, cultural and symbolic history of green.

Though Pastoureau points to the evolution of color as one much dependent on perceptions of gradations of light understood today as differentiated wavelengths within an electromagnetic spectrum, his discourse, squarely focused on treatments and interpretations of local color as practiced by artists, is less a scientific analysis, theoretical survey, or aesthetic-metaphysical reflection, than a social history, recounted in language, lore, religious belief, and literary symbolism. Within the vast bibliography of color that ranges from technical handbooks (Feller, Mayer, Clarke) and dictionaries of symbols (Chevalier, Gheerbrant, Cooper) to theoretical and scientific treatises (Cennini, Alberti, de Piles, Chevreul, Rood, Itten) Pastoureau’s investigation defines the color that embellishes painting, manuscript illumination, sculpture, textiles, costume and heraldic emblems as a social phenomenon. “It is the society that ‘makes’ color,” he claims, “that gives it its definitions and meaning, that constructs its codes and values.” A French professor of Medieval History and Western Symbolism at the Sorbonne’s école pratique des hautes etudes, Pastoureau has published extensively on the cultural significance of color, medieval symbolism, and heraldry, books that include such exquisite titles as L’arbre:histoire naturelle et symbolique de l’arbre, du bois et du fruit au moyen age and The Bear: History of a Fallen King.

Closely attuned to etymology, he cites connotations that derive from terms such as glaukos and chloros coined in Homer, viridis in use among the Romans, silva and silvaticus from the medieval oral tradition and the heraldic sinople. He considers mineralogy, trade networks, dyes, and artificial pigments as well as industrial practices involving regulatory guilds, sumptuary laws, medicinal plants, and herbicides. Chemically unstable and subject to fading over time, he regards green as an ambivalent color, suggestive of life, growth, nature, and hope as well as sickness, demonism, and putrefaction. Variously informed by Biblical symbolism, liturgical exigency, Arabic medicine, the Protestant Reformation, iconoclasm, courtly romance, and Renaissance speculation, in the aftermath of the Scientific Revolution and Newton’s experiments in light refraction, empirical studies led to more systematic color theorizations informed by analytic psychology, physiology, physics, and later nineteenth century movements towards abstraction, forces that exploded what had once been a more tightly circumscribed, culture-specific, and fundamentally literary color vocabulary. Thus in some ways Pastoureau traces qualities assigned to color that mirror the sociological transformation from hierarchic structures to egalitarianism and scientific inquiry.

Pastoureau’s text is lively and animated, studded with fascinating historical anecdotes: Seneca who found the walls of Roman bathhouses to be dressed up like peacocks; Nero who relished leeks and viewed gladiator contests through a large emerald to not be bothered by rays of the sun; tales of the Green Knight of Arthurian legend, of Perrault’s Cinderella and Celtic fairies; the amorous reputation of the French King Henry IV known as le Vert Galant; speculation surrounding the 16th century Irish ballad, “Greensleeves;” Schubert’s fear of green; the discovery of Greenland; and a history of the French Cockade. A section devoted to Satan’s bestiary describes the revolting mating habits of vipers; dragons that “bit, ripped, devoured, swallowed, vomited, spit, and slobbered;” sirens, worms, and other hybrid watery creatures that fed voraciously on decaying flesh and pustular corpses.

“Only an eye, but what an eye,” was the charge leveled at retinal Impressionists by essentialists who echoed centuries of opposition between classicistes/modernistes, Poussinistes/Rubenistes, Cubists/Expressionists - advocates of line or color considered indicative of rational versus emotive approaches to art. Yet Pastoureau’s volume exuberantly indulges in Titianesque illustrative pleasure: Ptah the green-faced Egyptian vegetation god; trompe l’oeil murals from the Villa Livia in Rome; jewel-like Ottonian and Burgundian miniatures; gleaming Northern Renaissance panels; delicate chalk and graphite drawings on livre vert; Enlightenment portraits of “Young Goethe in a Green Coat” and Chardin’s “Self Portrait with a Green Eyeshade;” elegant promenades, enchanted jungles, and idyllic flower gardens by Seurat, Rousseau, Monet. Amid such opulence Pastoureau skillfully interweaves threads of history - Pope Innocent III’s declaration of green as the color of Hope in Life Eternal; the privilege of green reserved for Bourbon royalty; green, the dynastic color of Muhammad that becomes the sacred color of Islam. He reviews key fonts of color historiography composed by Aristotle, Pliny, Kircher, Le B ègue, Goethe, Boyle, Blanc and others; specifies pigments and color treatments employed by such notables as Vermeer, Poussin and Rubens, and reveals the preferences of Venetians, Barbizons, Romantics and Fauves.

This is a highly readable series, succinct and engaging for generalists and the public at large whose appreciation of art may be keenly enriched by its content. It joins more comprehensive studies in the field such as John Gage’s copious Color and Meaning:Art, Science and Symbolism and Color and Culture:Practice and Meaning from Antiquity to Abstraction; Marcia B. Hall’s Color and Meaning:Practice and Theory in Renaissance Painting; and more technical analyses of specific pigments and minerals in Robert Feller’s anthology Artists’ Pigments.

We are struck as much by the cultural coherence and sociological implications of Pastoureau’s history, as by its narrative construction, for it is presented as an arching continuum comprised of meanings, orders and borders once shared among a discreet population over a determined period of time.Unique to its era, locale and circumstances, the depth and intricacy of color symbolism, the communal and moral aspiration of its syntax, defied for centuries the subjectivity, contradiction and complex psychology characteristic of the modern age.Pastoureau’s story seeks to convey the poetic nuance and dimensionality that may have once imbued a particular experience of color.It approaches that intimate sensibility once described by Van Gogh to his sister as “the feeling of being present at a rebirth, total but benevolent, of all the things you believed in, all you have longed for, a strange and happy meeting of distant antiquity with crude modernity…”

Last Updated 1st February 2016

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