“As to the arsenic scare a greater folly is hardly possible to imagine: the doctors were bitten as people bitten by witch fever.”
~William Morris, The Collected Letters of William Morris, Vol. 2
Arsenic in Art
The discovery of a deep, vivid green by Swedish chemist Carl Wilhelm Scheele in 1775 led to a fashion craze lasting for a century. Although Scheele knew that the pigment he developed was highly poisonous, he also realized that it was unlike any other green pigment available to artists. The lure of bringing this deadly hue to market was an irresistible and lucrative lure.
Scheele’s Green became so popular that even after it became common knowledge that the paint was toxic, it was still being used for its vibrant color through the end of the 19th century. Gowns, hats, gloves and socks were dyed with it, sometimes making the wearer ill through touch alone. The ingredient that made the color in Scheele’s Green so vibrant was also responsible for its deadliness. That ingredient was arsenic.
Scheele’s Green (later reconfigured as Paris Green and Emerald Green) was not just used in dyes and paints. It was also used in wallpapers, insecticidal sprays used on vegetables and postage stamps. What a mix!
The wallpaper in Napoleon’s bedroom on St. Helena Island, where he died in exile, showed traces of Scheele’s Green in the fleur-de-lis pattern printed on it. Humid environments, like that on St. Helena, may have caused the arsenic to off-gas or perhaps even flake off the wallpaper itself. Although there is no conclusive evidence, it is suspected that the arsenic in the wallpaper may have contributed to his death.
As the opening quote by William Morris highlights, the action of arsenic in the human body was not understood by many of the users and practitioners that made the color so famous. Why? Because the arsenic did not affect everyone the same way. Some people exposed to the paint would fall ill, while others with a similar exposure, did not. However, a tragic pattern soon emerged—it was particularly lethal to the most vulnerable: children, the elderly and the sickly.
It is unlikely that many if any original green arsenic-colored wallpapers have survived and are still around today. However, Victoria Finley writes in The Brilliant History of Color in Art, “Even as late as 1950 the United States ambassador to Italy, Clare Boothe Luce, fell sick from arsenic poisoning. The CIA suspected the Soviets and sent a team to Rome to investigate. They eventually found that the ceiling in her bedroom was decorated with pigments full of arsenic. A new washing machine had been installed in the room above. Its juddering had released arsenic dust, which she breathed in as she slept.”
As artists, we must stay aware of the materials we are using and take precautions when handling pigments that may have toxic ingredients. But we are fortunate to be living in a time when it is easy to obtain detailed information about our materials as well as a time when manufacturers are working to create less and less toxic formulas. Many online art materials retailers now provide detailed information about their pigments, including which ones are still toxic. But still, be careful out there!
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