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4 april 2018

The color green, in literature, ought to have mostly springtime associations, and often it does. But there is a dangerous green behind the vital façade. You see it in Iago's "green-eyed monster," jealousy; in the febrile "green-sickness" that appears in Shakespeare and later authors; in Trumbull Stickney's "green and climbing eyesight of a cat" that "crawls near my mind's small birds"; in the damp, rich, and poisonous cake that Captain Hook bakes for Peter Pan's Lost Boys. Even when Andrew Marvell's mind, withdrawn "into its happiness," succeeds in "annihilating all that's made / to a green thought in a green shade," the association isn't entirely upbeat. Happy, yes, but annihilated all the same.

Michel Pastoureau does for green in Green what he'd done before for Blue and Black. Again, he is unabashed by the need to repeat a lot of material, and to range far beyond simple green. Again, he starts with classical civilization, and again the Greeks didn't have much of a sense of how to name the color, though they could certainly see it. But the Romans, who named black ambivalently and blue indistinctly, were quite clear about green: they called it viridis, with cognate terms expressing lushness, youth, springtime, and even perhaps masculinity. As a result, green didn't have to be newly discovered in the Middle Ages.

Green was always a secondary color in Christendom (though it had flourished among Celtic and Germanic pagans). In favor among the Ottonians and some other early dynasties, green fell out of the court repertoire early. Green entered the Catholic liturgy late, even though it would eventually become the color of "ordinary time": pervasive but unexceptional. Green was the least-used color in heraldry, though at least it existed in the standard schemes, under the odd term "sinople."

Pastoureau is above all a historian of dyes and dyers. The relative neglect of green during the Middle Ages and early-modern periods has much to do with the way that dyeing was regulated. True greens were expensive and hard to fix. Illuminators made green paint and ink by mixing blue and yellow, but dyers were legally forbidden to mix colors. Not till governments loosened restrictions did green flourish again. It became the color of money, the military, and sports fields.

For a time green seemed poised to take over the world. "Administrative" green, Paris green, institutional green: for awhile it seemed like every newspaper kiosk, every hospital corridor, every metro station, and every filing cabinet in the West. And in the late 20th century, green took another turn, to be the color of health and safety: the green cross of pharmacies, the green of organic food, Greenpeace – and ultimately greenwashing.

This is in the West. Pastoureau alludes to Islam and further east only sporadically, but in the Middle East green is honored in an entirely positive way, without the ambiguities that cluster around it in Europe and North America. Green crept onto a few national flags in the era of western nationalisms: Ireland of course, Italy for reasons more obscure; but uniform green became the Saudi Arabian banner.

One of the more interesting by-ways of Green comes in a couple of sections on the absence of green from the palettes of certain modern artists. Vassily Kandinsky considered green to be "stupid, inexpressive" (202), and sure enough, his great abstract paintings use it sparingly; even Kandinsky's early representational paintings, from his Murnau period, offer a range of blue and yellow foliage that seems bent on expunging green from landscapes. Piet Mondrian would more completely eliminate green from his late abstracts, where he goes in for primary colors against black and white designs. You can probably think of half-a-dozen great modernists who loved green off the top of your head, but it's interesting that some should come close to proscribing its use.

Green uses a stunning photo of Jane Fonda, c1959, in a green plaid dress, on a green leather couch, as its dust-jacket illustration. But the book underneath is bound in black boards. Princeton University Press should have sprung for a little cover color.

Pastoureau, Michel. Green: The history of a color. [Vert, histoire d'une couleur, 2013.] Translated by Jody Gladding. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2014. BF 789 .C7P39513