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Paris Green, the poisonous and lethal color used by Impressionist artists

This is the story of one of the most beautiful but dangerous shades of green.

Think of any Impressionist artwork. Maybe “The Water Lily Pond” by Monet is full of greenery and pastel colors that really capture the beauty of a lily pond. Well, it turns out that many of the Impressionist and Post-Impressionist era paintings were made with a highly toxic pigment that has been accused of being responsible for Napoleon’s death. We are talking about Scheel Green, also known as Emerald Green.

This color became so popular thanks to its vibrance and very particular green hue that resembled that in nature, but what many didn’t know was that it was also poisoning those using it because its composition included arsenic.

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This is the story of one of the most beautiful but dangerous shades of green.

During the Industrial Revolution, people, especially artists or those of the upper class, began looking for ways to bring color into their life. For this reason, the quest to create vibrant colors was a must for chemists, and the first one to discover the first of the “poison greens” was Carl Scheele, a Swedish chemist who created a color that accurately mimicked the hues found in nature. It had full saturation that created vegetal green. But there was a problem with it, its composition.

To create this color, Scheele used a process of heating sodium carbonate, adding arsenious oxide, stirring until the mixture was dissolved, and then adding copper sulfate to the final solution.

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This was easy and cheap to produce and despite Scheele knowing it was highly toxic, he decided to release it to the public for its characteristics and because it was one of the first colors not to fade or darken with time.

According to Victoria Finlay, color historian, Scheele was troubled about what could his color could bring to users, but concluded that “what’s a little arsenic when you’ve got a great new color to sell?”. Just remember that arsenic can cause skin lesions, vomit, diarrhea, and in some cases, cancer and even death.

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Besides paintings, Scheele’s green was also used to dye dresses, waistcoats, shoes, gloves, and trousers, making it even more dangerous.

Paris Green, another poisonous color

Despite the popularity of Scheele’s new product, concerns about its toxicity began to appear and so in 1814, Wilhelm Sattler, a paint manufacturer in Schweinfurt, Germany, worked with Friedrich Russ to create a better arsenic compound to use as a colorant. That is how Emerald Green was born.

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This new pigment, also known as Paris Green, had brighter green hues and was much more stable and less prone to change its tone with time, however, it was equally toxic and made with copper acetoarsenite.

Soon, Emerald Green became very popular, especially for colored wallpapers but there was a problem with it. When applied on damp walls and mixed with fungal products, the Emerald Green produced trimethyl arsine gas, which was thought to be responsible for many deaths, among them Napoleon Bonampart who was a huge fan of having green walls. However, this belief has never been confirmed.

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The artists who used it

Many were the artists who used Emerald Green to give their artworks that pop of color that was needed, for example, English painter J.M.W Turner used it mostly in watercolors, as can be seen in his painting Rouen, Looking Downstream from 1832.

Édouard Manet and Claude Monet were other artists who used this bright color to bring life into their paintings however it was highly toxic, and neither of them died due to arsenic poisoning.

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Either Scheele Green or Paris Green have also been found widely in the landscapes of Cézanne, Gauguin, Pissarro, and Vincent van Gogh.

As its use was more and more common, the relation between its arsenic concentrations of it and injuries in the skin or even deaths started to raise concerns; that is why by the late 19th century, the pigment was banned in many countries. But it was not until the 1960s that it was completely discontinued.

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Green has always been problematic

The poisonous composition and being discontinued caused green to begin to be associated with evil things. But as a society move forward, the color meaning did too and later it was resignified to represent the environment and life. But it has a problem, is not ecofriendly at all.

Today green is still a complicated color to achieve. Commercial green colors are often made using pigments that contain chlorine and bromide atoms. A very specific green pigment (the #50), uses cobalt, titanium, nickel, and zinc oxide.

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“The color green can never be green, because of the way it is made. It’s impossible to dye plastic green or to print green ink on paper without contaminating them.” Wrote Michael Braungart, a German chemist who studies colors.

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