St. Patrick’s Blue?
St. Patrick, the Patron Saint of Ireland, was not Irish, and the color associated with him was not originally green: rather, it was a shade of blue that came to be called “St. Patrick’s blue.” The actual hue of this color is contended. When Henry VIII assumed the throne and declared himself King of Ireland in 1541, he gave it a coat of arms featuring a golden harp on a ground of deep blue. When George III created the Order of St. Patrick for Ireland in 1783, however, its official color was a sky blue. The use of green as a symbol of Ireland came into use in the 1798 Irish Rebellion. From that point on, green became the national color of the Emerald Isle.
That being said, let’s get into what we know about the saint’s life, why we celebrate this holiday, and a little bit about the history of the color green in artwork.
In fifth-century northern Britain (what would now be Scotland), a 16-year-old boy was kidnapped from his home by Irish marauders. He escaped after being held as a slave for six years. Once freed, the young man returned to Ireland because he was told in a vision to become a priest and go back to convert the pagan people to Christianity. From here, we only know of tales about this man, who took the name Patrick.
March 17—the day Patrick died on 461 AD—became a holiday in his honor as early as the seventh century. The holiday gained prominence mainly because it was the one day Catholics were allowed to let loose during Lent, the time between Mardi Gras and Easter when Catholics restrained from much revelry.
St. Patrick’s Day gained more importance in colonial America when many Irish people moved to the New World to escape hardships such as famine and poverty. Wearing green on this day to represent the “emerald isle” became a custom, springing from the original adorning of a shamrock on the lapel. Today, wearing green on March 17 in America is common whether or not you have Irish heritage, more as a celebration of immigrant cultures melding to create America than of the Catholic saint himself.
Green in Art History
Whether or not you’re wearing green, we have plenty of beautiful green artworks to celebrate the Irish-American holiday. In our Colonial and Nineteenth-Century Gallery, we see many lush, green, picturesque landscapes, such as George Inness’s Sunset on the River.
Sunset on the River, a peaceful scene of cows grazing in a broad green pasture, suggests the renewed spirituality in artist George Inness’s personal life and artistic practice at that time. The storm clouds unite the heavenly and earthly realms in the artist’s pastoral world, where natural cycles and seasonal rhythms signify constancy and the eternal.
In many other cultures as well as our own, the color green implies nature, growth, spring, youth, rebirth, fertility, and health. But there are also connotations and phrases portraying different meanings: “green with envy,” green as in inexperienced, or green as a color implying illness. It is a lucky color in Ireland, but unlucky in other cultures. “Green” today also means anything marketed as environmentally conscious—a new movement overtaking products in grocery store aisles and advertisements on TV.
Though not as complex a past as blue, red, or purple, the color green has a storied history in its use in art.
Originating, it seems, as a color to describe the natural world and plant life, the word “green” comes from the Anglo-Saxon growan, meaning to grow. Some of the first uses of green still present in Western art are on mosaics. In religious mosaics of the early Middle Ages, the walls of Heavenly Jerusalem were portrayed as built of precious gems such as emeralds, sapphires, and pearls: as seen in the fifth-century triumphal arch mosaic in the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore, in Rome. Here green represents the healthy grass in paradise as well as the gleaming walls of Heaven.
In Medieval Europe, green had many different connotations and uses. It symbolized the virtue of faith, eternally verdant. Green is a secondary color—a mixture of the primary colors blue and yellow—but at the time it was considered a tertiary color, and was believed to lack the strength of blue or red. Therefore, it was considered unsuitable for coats of arms. By the fourteenth century, artists painting with tempera (an egg yolk mixture) were taught to start with a base of green to correctly paint skin tone, thus the earthy green color under the faces and hands in many early Renaissance paintings. In some cases, the top pink layer has faded and the light green faces look oddly illuminated and sickly.
Green was used as an undertone for skin color in the Middle Ages, and, this practice, it seems, carried through in Paul Cadmus’s tempera painting Self-Portrait from 1935 in the Crystal Bridges’ collection.
Green in the late Middle Ages and Renaissance also denoted water.
Green water, instead of blue, gives us a different experience with Carroll Cloar’s image of life in the rural South seen in our 1940s to Now Gallery. Everything is lush, green and flat — the green water looking swampy, slippery, stagnant, and hot rather than cool, moving, and refreshing.
Green clothing was thought to imbue the wearer with water characteristics, which needed to be balanced out by fire, as we see in the different colored garments of the Arnolfini couple painted in the fifteenth century. Qualities of Venus, the Goddess of Love, also correspond with the color green: in this instance to promote fertility. Additionally, her green robe makes the woman stand out in front of the red furnishings around the room.
This combination of reds and greens always stands out against one another, as seen in Raspberries in a Wooded Landscape by William Mason Brown, in Crystal Bridges’ collection.
In one instance, green could be deadly. In 1775 the Swedish chemist Carl Wilhelm Scheele created a new paint—later to be called “emerald green”—that became popular for patterns in bedrooms, carpets, and clothes and stayed in style for a century. Chefs would even use the color as a food dye. Unfortunately, the color was made with copper arsenite, a compound containing arsenic. People and pets would occasionally die from too much contact with this paint.
Scheele’s emerald green may have also contributed to Napoleon’s death on St. Helena Island in 1821. His bedroom wallpaper had small Scheele-green fleur-de-lis designs which could have certainly contributed to his illness. Scheele knew that his paint was dangerous, but even at the end of the nineteenth century, artists and decorators continued to use it because it was so bright and eye-catching. Sometimes decorators would even lick the walls to prove that the color was safe.
In the early 1900s, a shift in modern art occurred where the painter no longer had to adhere to representation of the natural colors of a landscape or portrait. A famous example of how green affects a painting in this modern trend is Henri Matisse’s Madame Matisse (the Green Line) from 1905, named so because of the green line running down the portrait’s face. A leader of the Fauvist movement, Matisse felt color should be used in an expressive manner instead of a naturalistic one.
Henri Matisse, Portrait of Madame Matisse. (The Green Line), 1905, Oil and tempera on canvas, 40.5 x 32.5 cm. Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen.
The greenest object on display at Crystal Bridges today is “Untitled” (L.A.) by Felix Gonzalez-Torres. The work takes the form of a large rectangle of green candies arranged on the floor of the 1940s to Now Gallery. Unlike most artworks, this is a work you can actually touch. Guests are encouraged to help themselves to a piece of the candy. Wonder why the candies are green instead of another color? Your conjectures are as good as ours.
Happy St. Patrick’s Day!