The meaning behind green

How often do you consider the backstory behind the colours you choose as an artist? Welcome to our deep dive on the meaning of green.

Perhaps it's lush evergreen green forests or lucky four-leaf clovers. Ideas of freedom, status or envy might spring to mind. But why do we perceive green this way? And what other connotations does it evoke? The fact that one colour can bring to mind such a variety of images and themes is fascinating.

Photo by Mike Swigunski on Unsplash.

Life, rebirth, and nature

The new year brings with it fresh starts, budding ideas and new beginnings. Whether it’s depicting growth, fertility or rebirth, the colour green has existed for thousands of years as a symbol of life itself. In Islamic legend the saintly figure Al-Khidr represents immortality and is depicted adorned in green robes in religious iconography. The Ancient Egyptians illustrated Osiris – god of the underworld and of rebirth – with green skin, seen illustrated in paintings applied to the Tomb of Nefertari dating as far back as 13th century BC. Ironically, though, the colour green initially failed to endure the test of time. Creating a green paint using a combination of natural earth and the copper mineral malachite meant that its longevity was compromised over time, as the green pigment turned black. Yet still the legacy of green as a symbol of life and new beginnings has remained intact.

In the Japanese language, a term to describe the colour green is midori, which comes from "to be in leaf" or "to flourish". Vital to landscape painting, green flourished immensely in artworks from the 19th century. Consider the pigments mixed with veridian and emerald greens in Van Gogh’s 1889 Green Wheat Field, Morisot’s Summer’s Day (circa 1879) and Monet’s Irises (circa 1914–17). And the colour has evolved further still from canvas to international emblems, recognised in the Pan-African flag in the 20th century. Established in 1920 to honour the Black diaspora around the globe, the flag’s green stripe stands for the natural wealth of Africa’s soils and as a reminder of one’s roots.

‘The Mona Lisa, as seen from the crowds around it’ Credit: Unsplash.

Status and wealth

By the Middle Ages in Europe green was used to separate rich from poor. In dressing yourself in green, you could project a ranking of high social status or of respected profession, distinct from the crowds of peasants wearing lacklustre grey and brown cloths. Jan Van Eyck’s masterpiece The Arnolfini Wedding (circa 1435) has drawn countless interpretations surrounding the portrayal of the painting’s mysterious couple. One thing is undisputed, however: their wealth and social ranking. Van Eyck’s use of a vivid shade of green for the woman’s dress is one of the giveaway clues as to their affluence; at the time, producing this colour fabric was an expensive and lengthy dyeing process that used a combination of minerals and vegetables.

However, the colour green had its limitations. The most famous painting of all time portrays its model dressed in green: in Da Vinci’s The Mona Lisa (1503–1519) the green dress suggests that she is from the gentry, as red was reserved for the nobility. Today, the relationship with green and social status has transitioned to financial wealth over class. From the faded-green hues of the US dollar bill since 1861 to the green tables lining gambling halls, green characterises a major change in the way that we quantify status in the modern world.

Emerald and Cobalt Green pigments, taken from the Winsor & Newton archive.

Poison, jealousy and deceit

Though green has been associated with sickness since Ancient Greek and Roman times, we owe its association with jealousy to William Shakespeare. The idiom "green-eyed monster" was first coined by the Bard in The Merchant of Venice (circa 1596–1599), and "green-eyed jealousy" is a line taken from Othello (circa 1603). This untrustworthy affiliation with green continued when toxic paints and dye were used in wallpaper, upholstery and clothing in the 18th century. It had become easier to create the colour green using brighter and more permanent synthetic green pigments, and the now notorious arsenic-laced Scheele’s Green was invented in 1775 by Carl Wilhelm Scheele. The element of arsenic meant that a much more vibrant green colouring could, for the first time, be created, and its bold hue was hugely popular amongst Victorian society in London and Paris, who were ignorant to its poisonous effects.

The resulting widespread illnesses and deaths inflicted led to the colour ceasing production by the end of the century. More recently, L Frank Baum’s 1900 book The Wizard of Oz uses green as a method of trickery and deceit. The Wizard enforces a rule whereby the residents of the Emerald City are led to believe that their city is more beautiful than it is in reality: "My people have worn green glasses on their eyes so long that most of them think it really is an Emerald City." Furthermore, the 1939 Technicolour cinematic adaptation changed the face of witches in popular culture for good, when film studio MGM decided the Wicked Witch of the West’s skin colour would be green.

Freedom and independence

Green has been used to signify freedom and independence through the 20th century onwards. Art Deco painter Tamara de Lempicka’s glamorous 1925 self-portrait Tamara in a Green Bugatti was emblazoned on the cover of German fashion magazine Die Dame and has since become an icon of the rising women’s liberation movements of the early 20th century. Though the artist herself did not own the eponymous vehicle, Lempicka sitting in the driver’s seat represents an empowered ideal through art. More recently, in 2021, actor Elliot Page adorned his Met Gala suit lapel with a green carnation – a nod to poet Oscar Wilde, who did the same as a sign of secret solidarity amongst homosexual men in 1892. Today, this statement can be seen a sign of the growing freedom and open solidarity in support of the LGBT+ community.