Arsenic Green: An Essay
Some colors are worse than others, and that is an objective truth.
My old bedroom walls resembled a sensible dinner of polenta, mashed potatoes, and white bread. One of those things we can live with, but certainly nothing to look forward to. They may have held their own buttery brilliance against a warm sun, but I hated the fact that they reminded me of starch-mush any other day in the void that is Rochester, NY. There are only so many posters, banners, and drawings that can distract you from the clumpy dissatisfaction of old people walls.
A few years ago, while my brother was moving out and into college, I took advantage of the house reshuffling to repaint those sad walls. Green’s association with growth seemed like the answer to my stale situation. However, just “green” can mean little in consideration to the thousands of shade codes those robots click out at Lowe’s. It means even less to the greats of art, those with color palettes as unique and unforgeable as their own identity.
I picked my poison—it was from Monet. While all of his art is beautiful, I didn’t find inspiration in the stacks of wheat. Is that for an obvious reason? I found my green in (Google Images’) Giverny, some from his spring gardens or lily pads but mostly in the Japanese bridges crossing over. Those structures may be man-made, but the freedom they allow for wanderers and critters alike to traverse the terrain feels peaceful with natural purpose. The hue itself is an inbetweener: maybe Kelly green and pond water? The perfect choice for my room.
A few slabs of paint and years later, I am taking my first art history college course. All is going well, ok Impressionism is a thing, ok Manet and Monet are different, ok ok…and then I see my green projected on the monitor. My bedroom walls are scientific, something to be analyzed, deconstructed, wash, rinse, repeat. All as if I hadn’t spent years under them living an everyday life. They even named it while I was away in the suburbs: “Arsenic Green.”
My professor recounts the history. The color was in fashion during the 19th century, particularly among the Victorian elite. Women adored how their pigmented dresses glowed under newly invented oil lamps, and the trend soon assimilated into their everyday lives: find it in wallpaper, paint, toys, and other goods. However, my favorite color is not innocent; early on, several doctors were well informed of the element’s toxicity. The consumers were all too smitten to go back to “abominable grays, hideous browns, and dreadful yellows,” as phrased by prominent practitioner Dr. Thudichum. The fatal casualties are the price paid in the name of “bathing the city in green;” in the name of surface-level aesthetics.
My imitation color served its purpose, but it’s nicer to study postcards and posters because they do not envelop you or define your space. Control is necessary, and distance prevents the romanticization of the troubling aspects while empowering the endearing--I love art, but I won’t lose myself to it like a method actor might in their role. What I will take with me is observed and hand-picked and not blindly accepted for the sake of it being art.
My dorm walls today are one of the “abominable” off whites, but I no longer complain like the victorian doctor. Instead, I shatter and reconfigure the room at whim; the beige primer becomes not only tolerable but a needed neutral footing for quick hands’ refinement of taste and values. The domestic color’s universality is peaceful and with natural purpose as I regularly swap lights, letters from home, and decorations with the ease of a curious student equipped with blue tack.
This is all to say that I want the coolness of arsenic green with the comfort of oatmeal beige.