The color green has long been associated with nature, growth, renewal, and energy. But when did humans first become aware of green as a distinct color? How did early societies and cultures treat and represent the color green? Here is a look at some of the key developments in the discovery and use of the color green throughout history.
Early Awareness of Green
The earliest humans lived as hunter-gatherers and would have been intimately familiar with the green colors found abundantly in nature. The grass, leaves, and green plants that surrounded them and provided sustenance would have imprinted the color green in their mind. However, they did not have an abstract concept or name for the color green specifically. The origins of green as a distinct abstract color term emerged later as human cultures developed more sophisticated color vocabularies.
Studies of ancient languages have shown that color vocabularies start out limited and later expand to include more precise descriptions of color hues. The earliest languages distinguished mainly between dark and light but later developed more names for colors. Green was sometimes described as a type of yellow, or yellow-blue, before being recognized as its own distinct color.
One of the first written uses of the word green in an abstract sense comes from Ancient Egypt. The hieroglyphic symbol “wadj” was used to represent the color green and is found in Ancient Egyptian texts dating back to 2500 BC. The ancient Egyptians associated green with freshness and life. Malachite, a green mineral, was used in decorative arts.
Green in Ancient Greek and Roman Cultures
In Ancient Greek and Roman cultures, there were descriptors for green but they were treat as shades of other colors like yellow or blue. The Greek word “khloros” referred to the yellowish-green color of young plant growth. The Ancient Greek poet Homer used “khloros” to describe nature such as describing the sea as “wine-dark” and oxen as “khloros.” Roman authors like Virgil similarly used the Latin equivalents of “viridis” or “glaucus” to evoke greenish shades.
It was not until the development of the optical theory of colors by Greek philosophers like Aristotle that green came to be thought of as a separate primary color alongside yellow and blue. However, even Aristotle still linked green closely with blue.
In the mosaic art of Ancient Greece and the Roman Empire, green was a commonly depicted color, used along white, black, yellow, and red tesserae to create richly colored scenes of nature, architecture, figures, and more. Malachite and green earth were common green pigments used in Roman painting.
Green in the Middle Ages
In the Middle Ages, green continued to be symbolically associated with nature. The color was strongly connected to springtime and the fresh growth of plants. People of the Middle Ages did not have reliable permanent green pigments or dyes. To color fabric or illuminated manuscripts green, artists would dye the material yellow first and then layer a blue color on top.
During the medieval era, green was not considered one of the main heraldic colors. Red, blue, black, and purple were far more prominent in coats of arms and other heraldic symbols. When green was used, it was typically considered interchangeable with the color vert, which referred to any greenish hue ranging from a bluish-green to a yellowish-green.
It was not until the Late Middle Ages starting in the 14th century that green became firmly established as its own color in heraldry, distinct from vert. A wider range of green shades began to be depicted as well, enabled by the increasing use of more stable green dyes from mineral and plant sources.
Renaissance and the Emergence of Verdigris
During the Renaissance, the use of greens with a bluer tone became popular, enabled by the increasing availability of verdigris, a blue-green pigment made from copper. The painter Cennino Cennini described how to make verdigris in his medieval treatise The Book of Art. Use of verdigris, also called verdeazzuro, spread during 15th century in Renaissance painting.
Renaissance artists like Botticelli were able to use verdigris mixed with yellows to create deeper greens with richness and luminosity like the hues found in nature. The painter Donatello similarly used verdigris for pioneering lifelike depictions of nature in sculpture.
The influence of new green pigments spread beyond the visual arts into fashion as well. Bright greens and deep forest greens became popular colors for clothing among the wealthy elite who wore Renaissance fashion trends.
The Scientific Study of Color and Green
The modern understanding of color and light developed in the 17th and 18th centuries during the Scientific Revolution and Age of Enlightenment. In 1666, English scientist Sir Isaac Newton conducted his pioneering experiments with prisms, recognizing that sunlight was made up of all the colors of the rainbow blended together. Newton associated each color with a musical note and categorized seven main colors: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and violet.
In 1802, the English chemist John Dalton published a theory that explained how colors were scientifically determined by the wavelength of light. The wavelength for green light was between 520-570 nanometers. Further experiments by Thomas Young, James Clerk Maxwell and Hermann von Helmholtz led to the modern understanding of how the eye perceives color using cone cells in the retina.
Green was definitively established as residing in the central part of the color spectrum with its own specific wavelength of light. The modern concept of green as a primary color and distinct hue had emerged over centuries of cultural development, artistic use, and scientific study.
19th Century – Emerald Green Pigment
In 1814, a new transparent and stable green pigment known as emerald green was invented, comprising copper acetoarsenite. The vivid pigment, also called Paris green or Scheele’s green, became popular for printing, fabrics, wallpaper, and other uses.
However, emerald green also had the unfortunate drawback of being extremely toxic due to the arsenic in its composition. It caused many industrial hazards and even deaths. Despite the known toxicity, it remained a frequently used pigment in the 19th century before finally being phased out in the 20th century due to health concerns.
Impressionists and Post-Impressionists
Green featured prominently in Impressionist paintings in the late 19th century as artists like Monet and Renoir vividly captured the greens found in nature. Using new pigments like viridian, invented in 1859, the Impressionists were able to explore a wide range of greens, from brilliant emerald greens to earthy forest greens. Monet’s Water Lilies series prominently featured the many greens reflected in water.
Post-Impressionist painters like Cezanne, Gauguin, and Van Gogh similarly all used bold greens to create symbolic associations, convey emotions, or capture nature’s vividness in their works. Van Gogh’s 1889 painting The Green Wheatfield was an expressive use of bold green brushstrokes evoking nature and growth.
Green in 20th Century Culture
Green took on many new cultural associations in the 20th century. One was its frequent use symbolizing technology, modernity, commerce, and finance. Corporate logos like John Deere tractors in green and green signage for chemists represented industrialization and technology.
Green was also adopted by political groups and causes. Green became associated with environmentalism as part of the ecology movements of the 1960s and 70s. Greenpeace and the Green Party were examples of the connection drawn between green and environmentalism.
The entertainment industry also embraced green in popular culture. The 1939 film The Wizard of Oz prominently featured the Emerald City and introduced the Wicked Witch of the West with iconic green skin. Green characters and symbols proliferated in comic books, cartoons, and eventually video games.
By the end of the 20th century, green had become firmly established in culture and commerce as representing nature, renewal, modernity, and more. The history of green reveals how cultural context continually shaped the evolving perceptions of a fundamental color.
The color green has a rich history spanning back to humanity’s earliest awareness of the verdant hues that surround us in the natural world. Ancient cultures like Egypt incorporated greens but did not conceptualize it as a distinct color. It was not until the developments of Greek philosophy and science that green was recognized as a unique part of the color spectrum.
The shifting availability of green pigments and dyes impacted how cultures made use of greens. The toxic pigment emerald green exemplified the dual nature of scientific progress. Ultimately, the story of discovering green shows how science, culture, commerce, and philosophy all contributed to crystallizing the modern conception of green as a primary color deeply connected to the natural world.