Whether it’s in the form of growing plants, precious stones, or deliberately blended pigments, there’s a human impulse to surround ourselves with green in the art we create, the environments we inhabit, and the spaces we build. Green evokes fertile landscapes, growth and prosperity, and even health and wellness. Learn about how green has been made and understood across various cultures and traditions represented in the museum’s collections.
At A Glance
Although green surrounds our everyday life, the chlorophyll that makes plants green isn’t used in artwork because it fades too quickly.
While there aren’t many plant sources of green dyes in the art world, some Indian paintings use beetle wings to mimic shiny green emeralds. In very special works of art, emeralds could be carved to make unique objects, or were made into jewelry.
The green patina on copper and bronze objects occurs as the copper corrodes. Patina occurs naturally when copper comes into contact with salty or acidic surroundings. See, for instance, how a range of corrosion products affects the surface color of the ancient Chinese bronze ritual vessel below: most of the surface is covered with a smooth, tin oxide-stained pale green with copper compounds, but there are also numerous scattered small patches of dull red cuprite, and the bright, powdery green seen here and there represents copper chloride. Explore this object in 3D:
Copper corrosion products can be taken advantage of to create man-made copper green pigments; more commonly, however, the green mineral malachite can be ground to make paints. Malachite is often used in paintings in China.
Copper, together with lead, is often the basis of green glazes in ceramics. Mixtures of copper with yellow particles of lead tin oxide or lead antimony oxide are also used for green enamels.
Okabe Mineo (1919–1990, Seto, Aichi Prefecture) was the son of Kato Tokuro, another leading figure in the Momoyama Revival. During his early career, Okabe continued his father’s repertory of Mino-style Oribe, Yellow Seto, and Shino glazes. (From the early 1960s, he focused on Chinese-style celadon glazes.) Nonetheless, he exhibited his works not in the annual Traditional Craft Exhibition but in the fine arts Nitten, where ceramics were shown alongside painting and sculpture. In the 1954 Nitten exhibition, his Green Oribe-glazed jar received a major prize. Okabe’s throwing is deft and fast, and his Green Oribe glaze is a deep, blue-edged tone. His versions of the “gong-shaped” serving dish, in both Green Oribe and Yellow Seto modes, show how a potter might develop a distinctive form and then try it in diverse glaze formats.
Chrome green is a very new addition to the artists’ palette, only becoming prevalent in the nineteenth century, but it can be found in many of the American works at the National Museum of Asian Art.
“Celadon” refers to a large family of high-fired ceramics. Their glazes are colored by small percentages of iron oxide. When fired in an oxygen-deprived, or reducing, atmosphere, the glazes turn variable shades of bluish green, traditionally described with the French word céladon. The word is commonly believed to have been derived from a seventeenth-century French drama, L’Astrée, in which a shepherd named Céladon appears dressed in a gray-green robe. Some modern scholars prefer the term “green ware,” but the poetic French name is more likely to remind a reader that celadon ceramics can exhibit a broad range of colors, from sky blue to sea green.
The smooth, luminous blue-green glaze of this vase is characteristic of celadon made in Longquan, in south China, during the late thirteenth to early fourteenth century. The handles, molded in the shape of fish with dragon heads, provide the sole decoration. Although the shape is modeled after a bronze vase, the texture of the Longquan glaze is often compared to jade, a prized material in China. Vases like this were made for domestic use and export.
Culture and language affect color perception. The Chinese word for the color of this dish is qing, which can be translated as “celadon.” Chinese ceramics in this color family were greatly admired in Europe, so the name transferred to them. The glaze color is not a straightforward “blue” or “green” as signified in everyday English, but it exists somewhere in this continuum of colors.
This wine bottle combines carved decoration and the clear, blue-green glaze that is considered ideal for celadons made during Korea’s Goryeo dynasty (918–1392), when ceramic production reached a high level of technical sophistication. The fantastical surface design comprises two large figures of phoenixes flying among thickly scrolling peony scrolls, which cover the bottle from the neck to a narrow band just above the foot. Firm outlines define the motifs, which are further emphasized by lightly beveled cuts on the outside that encouraged the glaze to pool and thus deepen in color, providing a “shadow” around the motifs. Fine incised lines render details of the birds and leaves.
Green was a distinctive feature of the Korean ceramic decoration known as sanggam. Originally, sanggam involved inlaying white and black pigments into stamped or carved motifs to create images of cranes, clouds, ducks, lotuses, and willows that appear to float within a translucent green glaze. This technique appeared in Korea by the mid-twelfth century; for two centuries, it would adorn tableware and ritual vessels used by the court, Buddhist institutions, and nobility. Learn more about this technique in a video lecture:
Jade was the first true luxury medium to emerge in ancient China. Although the term is used to refer to a range of hard, beautifully figured stones, most Chinese Neolithic, Bronze Age, and early imperial period examples have been scientifically identified as nephrite, geologically different from the bright, apple green jadeite used in much later times. Composed of interlocked, fibrous crystals and occurring as pebbles and boulders in a range of colors (due to iron, chromium, manganese, or similar materials fused in the rock), nephrite is an incredibly hard stone. It cannot be carved or even scratched by metal but instead must be ground into shape using quartz and other tough minerals. These qualities and its rarity inspired ancient Chinese people to value it very highly and to reserve its use for special purposes, such as for jewelry and ceremonial and ritual objects.
Get lost in the details of this intricately decorated jade disk through a guided video meditation:
According to his close friend Agnes Meyer, when Charles Lang Freer was ill near the end of his life, he often held a piece of jade in his hand, believing with an almost religious faith in the comforting and restorative powers of the stone. Freer collected ancient Chinese jades in large numbers, when most other Western collectors showed little interest. Ultimately, there were more than 500 pieces in his collection, spanning more than 5,000 years.
Green is so prevalent in the flora of the natural world that the color easily conjures lush environments teeming with plants. Life, growth, and regeneration are all concepts that come to mind in the context of verdant landscapes.
In Southeast Asia, during the ninth through the thirteenth century, constructing cities required carving out spaces from the verdant, tropical environment. The jungle had to be systematically cultivated; water had to be diverted into reservoirs, moats, and canals; and the landscape had to be carefully tended. When population centers shifted due to political, ecological, and religious changes, the tropical landscape readily encroached on the built environment, transforming once urban landscapes back into jungle. This environment informed Southeast Asian artists: on temple walls and sculptures, plants and flowers grow on thick stalks, vines curlicue, and sprays of foliage transform surfaces into lush landscapes.
In the arid state of Rajasthan in northwest India, eagerly awaited annual monsoon rains transform brown hills into verdant jungles. In the past, good monsoons meant prosperity, while scant rains led to inflation, unrest, and even famine. By layering greens, this hunt scene from the eighteenth century celebrates the kingdom’s prosperity as much as it does the king’s prowess. The painter Jugarsi praised the kingdom’s good fortune by depicting a lush and densely forested ravine after a particularly good monsoon. He wove together the jungle’s undergrowth from sweeping flourishes of minty grass, daubed leaves in shades of chartreuse and moss, and long lateral waves of deep green pigment. The silvery river snaking down the length of the left edge of the painting, where the king’s servants relax awaiting the end of a royal hunt, is another sign of an excellent monsoon season.
Green was also intentionally cultivated in gardens within built environments. The earliest known garden—the biblical Garden of Eden—may have been located in West Asia at the confluence of the Tigris and the Euphrates in present-day Iraq. The very word “paradise” is derived from the walled orchard gardens and hunting parks of ancient Iran, referred to as pardis. This type of enclosed garden became an integral part of Persian architectural landscape for centuries and often also included pavilions to provide shade and relief from the sun. According to written sources, the earliest gardens in China, dating to the Zhou period (ca. 1050–256 BCE), consisted of enclosed hunting grounds reserved for the royal elite. In the arid landscapes of West and South Asia, one of the most common garden plans depended on a series of interconnected pools and axial watercourses. Chinese gardens were often characterized by carefully positioned rocks and pools intended to recreate microcosms of nature at large. In Japan, gardens followed a more naturalistic design and incorporated rolling hills and languid ponds to underline harmony between humans and their surroundings.
Mass industrialization and urbanization altered attitudes toward green space in the late nineteenth century in both Europe and the United States. As working-class populations increasingly gravitated to cities for jobs in factories, they left behind rural landscapes for pollution-choked cities and cramped living quarters. Reformers advocated for parks and green spaces to offer healthful respites for those living in potentially unsanitary quarters. Touting the health benefits of fresh air and time outdoors, middle- and upper-class Americans and Europeans with means decamped to rustic retreats to recharge and treat all variety of illnesses, from tuberculosis to neurasthenia—an ailment tied to the fast pace of modern life.
Writing to Charles Lang Freer from his summer studio in Cornish, New Hampshire, in 1894, the painter Thomas Dewing observed, “I wish you could be here, taking in this cool fresh air filled with bird notes & scents of flowers.” Two years later, Dewing translated the sensory pleasures of a woodland ramble into the visual language of painting, noting in a letter to Freer that he had begun to paint a pair of screens representing “the four forest notes—the Hermit Thrush, the sound of running water, the woodpecker, and the wind through the pine trees.”
Inspiration for the screens came from a variety of sources, the most direct being the evocative New England landscape. The idea for a bifold screen may have come from Dewing’s 1895 visit to the Paris studio of James McNeill Whistler, where Dewing had seen a Japanese screen painted with a Nocturne, Whistler’s term for his moonlit river views. Dewing knew that the Japanese format appealed to Freer, for he often acted as the collector’s agent at Yamanaka & Co., a New York dealer in Asian art. During the two years that Dewing worked on The Four Sylvan Sounds, Freer acquired twelve Japanese screens. The influence of those works is apparent here in the forest leaves and flowers, painted with a stencil, recalling the elegant, stylized patterns of several screens in Freer’s Japanese collection.
Immerse yourself in the soothing, enveloping green of these paintings in a guided video meditation: