Verdigris: The Color of Oxidation, Statues, and Impermanence (2023)

Palais Paar, Vienna, Austria, ca. 1765–72 (Courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art)

It’s hard to imagine now, but people once gathered together freely, shoulders rubbing against shoulders, breath exchanged between lungs, bodies open to one another—all this closeness, almost a million people standing in a crowd just to watch a statue get undressed.

It was a rainy October day in 1886 and the Statue of Liberty was shrouded in a French flag. The weather was miserable and the ceremonial unveiling went poorly. The drapery was pulled off too soon (right in the middle of a speech), and the fireworks display had to be canceled and rescheduled. Still, over a million freezing New Yorkers came out (including a boat full of suffragettes, protesting the statue). While it’s hard for me to even imagine standing inside a crowd of that size, it’s harder still to imagine the Statue of Liberty herself, as she looked then. Before she was the verdigris icon, patron saint of many a bespoke paint color, she was copper-skinned. Brown, not green.

It felt like a revelation to read that tiny detail in Ian Frazier’s New Yorker piece on Statue of Liberty green. When residents first beheld Lady Liberty, they saw not an otherworldly, aqua-skinned allegory holding her lit torch to the sky, but a metallic, regal woman stretching upward from a granite plinth. It’s a simple enough fact, and yet I have trouble wrapping my head around it. Brown, not green.

She was brown because that’s the color of copper, an interesting chemical metal that occurs in a usable form frequently in nature. She is green because that’s the color of verdigris, a substance that both is and isn’t turquoise. She’s green because we live surrounded by oxygen and when oxygen comes into contact with a metal like copper, it begins to tear away the electrons, which allows for the copper atoms to begin reacting with other particles. On the coast, uncoated metal can come face-to-face with harsh seawater, a substance that is naturally full of salt—ions and carbonic acid. Thus, the Lady’s metal skin gains a thin, colorful coating made of copper chloride. This crystalline solid appears to the human eye as a light robin’s-egg blue, a turquoise patina, a soft hue somewhere between green and blue.

Statue of Liberty, Annie Spratt, Wikimedia Commons

Next to the shifting and dated definition of millennial pink, the green-blue spectrum is perhaps my favorite color quandary. It’s a surprisingly loaded issue: where one ends and the other begins, and what to call the colors in between. For centuries, there was a myth circulating in white culture that the more words we had for colors, the more colors we could see. Since some cultures don’t have separate words for green and blue, some historians believed that the people who spoke those languages couldn’t see the difference, that their visual skills were lesser-than, that their abilities were less evolved than the cultures that named these leaves green, that pool blue. According to this logic, English speakers were superior because of our words for green and blue—not to mention our words for all those shades that exist in the gradient between them.

Edgar Degas, The Singer in Green, 1884

This is most likely not the case. People’s eyes work mostly the same around the world (save for notable exceptions, such as those who are visually impaired or color blind). The fact that we’re living in an increasingly color-literate world doesn’t mean we’re changing how we see. But we are changing how we look.

Since I became interested in colors a few years ago, I began amassing a mental collection of in-betweens. Colors that didn’t fall into a clear category. Colors that I felt were misnamed or misunderstood. The majority of them fell into the same bucket as so-called copper green. In here, I threw aqua, cyan, turquoise, teal, and Tiffany. I filed away glaucous and Cambridge Blue. None of them are really blue and none of them are really green. I suppose they’re all shades of turquoise, yet that seems wrong, too. Turquoise is a relatively new name. Before there was turquoise, there was verdigris.

Eggs of British birds, Seebohm, 1986

Verdigris is the ur-turquoise. The name comes an Old French term, vert-de-Grèce (“green of Greece”). It is also sometimes known as “copper green” or “earth green,” since the pigment was commonly made from ground-up malachite or oxidized copper deposits. Certainly, verdigris owes a great debt to copper (symbol: Cu), as do the gemstones turquoise (chemical composition: CuAl6(PO4)4(OH)8·4H2O) and malachite (chemical composition: Cu2CO3(OH)2). In America, we’re more likely to call these green-blue shades turquoise (from the Old French for Turkish, or “from-Turkey”) or Tiffany Blue (coined in 1845 with the publication of the Tiffany’s Blue Book catalogue and trademarked in 1998) than we are to invoke old-timey verdigris. Yet I prefer the odd old name, with its vivid consonants and slithery tail. The word sounds unstable, fittingly fluid for such a liquid hue.

For many hundreds of years, verdigris was the most brilliant green readily available to painters. In the Middle Ages and during the Renaissance, artists commonly manufactured verdigris by hanging copper plates over boiling vinegar and collecting the crust that formed on the metal. This was mixed with binding agents, like egg white or linseed oil, and applied to canvas, paper, or wood. While not all of these famous works have been chemically analyzed, verdigris can reportedly be seen in paintings by the likes of Botticelli, Bosch, Bellini, and El Greco. But like Lady Liberty, who started as brown and lightened to green, many of these works have morphed over the years, their bright hues fading from saturated cyan or emerald (depending on how the color was mixed) to murky grays and pond-water browns. For verdigris is both toxic and unstable, a fact that Leonardo da Vinci knew, though he persisted in using it still. (“Verdigris with aloes, or gall or turmeric makes a fine green and so it does with saffron or burnt orpiment; but I doubt whether in a short time they will not turn black,” he wrote.) It was just such a beautiful color, and so accessible. It was hard for painters to resist, even when they knew it would render their works mortal. To use verdigris was to accept that your lovingly rendered scene would one day sour. The bright cloaks would turn dark, the soft grass would fade, the foliage turn. But such is the nature of cloth and plants and paint. Such is the nature of beauty.

Jan van Eyck, Portrait of Margaret van Eyck, 1439

Of course, it is possible to restore a painting. Sometimes, when a painting is restored, the conservationists use synthetic pigment to retouch areas where the color has faded or changed. This was the case with Jan van Eyck’s Margaret, the Artist’s Wife, which hangs in the National Gallery in London. “Following cleaning the small losses and areas of damage needed to be retouched so that they do not distract from the compelling image and from Van Eyck’s immaculate painting technique,” writes Jill Dunkerton in her report on the process. “The materials used for the new restoration have to be stable, not changing colour like the old varnish and retouchings, and they must remain easily resoluble so that the painting can be safely cleaned again in the future. Carefully selected and tested modern synthetic resin paints are therefore employed.” While in some cases, the restored painting can look alarmingly different from the one we’re used to seeing (like with that ghastly Ghent lamb), Margaret doesn’t. She looks nice after her spa treatment—refreshed and pink. Her green accessories don’t look overly bright either, nor has her headdress been ruined. The National Gallery’s painstaking work paid off, and were Van Eyck around to see it, he might be quite pleased.

Yet there is something uncanny about even the most well-done restoration, just as there’s something strange about seeing pictures of the Statue of Liberty with her original copper coloring. Lately, I’ve found myself becoming increasingly skeptical about the value of authenticity as a goal. According to the logic of our time, it is important to be “real”. What is real? Real is authentic, unadorned, unchanged. Often, the “real” meaning is the primary one. What something “really” means is what it meant, according to traditionalists. This argument has big implications when it’s applied to things like the Bible or the Constitution. When applied to art, the stakes are much lower. But the logic still feels strange. It discourages appreciation for change, for the slow evolution of things. Lady Liberty isn’t “really” brown. She’s both brown and green and gray and a multitude of other colors. Greek temples aren’t “really” colorful; they were once colorful and now that’s gone and maybe someday they’ll be colorful again, if that’s the will of the people.

Giovanni Bellini, St. Francis in Ecstasy, 1480

I’m guilty of insisting on primacy myself, I know. At times, I’ve argued for the real definition of a color. But I also like how colors change, how words change, how material things age. Wood expands and contracts, copper gets weathered by the sea, and words move through cultures. What we call mauve isn’t what Victorians considered mauve. Same with puce. Same with so many other hues. Verdigris is emblematic of that movement. It’s a blue-green, yes. But more importantly, it’s a quality. It is hard to give it a hex code because it’s not flat. It’s a color made from change.

My recent interest in verdigris was piqued by the newfound ubiquity of Farrow & Ball colors, including the saturated teal they’re calling Verdigris. You might notice that I wrote colors there and not paints. Farrow & Ball is a high-end paint brand that has been profiled in the New Yorker and spoofed on SNL. It’s a subtle status marker that indicates a level of refinement in one’s private sphere. The paint itself isn’t really everywhere; I’ve seen it used in some house projects, but it’s not as common as you might think. Being able to name-check a Farrow & Ball hue indicates that you’re in possession of a certain level of cultural capital. It’s also a funny kind of capital, because you don’t have to spend money on Farrow & Ball to gain access to this rarefied sphere. A few interior designers have confessed to me that they use Benjamin Moore dupes for Farrow & Ball hues in their personal homes, since it’s virtually impossible to tell the difference. The paint isn’t the point—it’s the name that matters.

Farrow & Ball paint colors

And Farrow & Ball names are very, very good. Some are whimsical and child-like (like Mole’s Breath or Mouse’s Back), some are charmingly old-fashioned (Lamp Room Gray or Wavet, an “old Dorset term for a spider’s web”); a few are winter vegetables (Cabbage White, Brassica, Broccoli Brown), a few are obviously fancy (Manor House Gray, Mahogany), and many are simply obscure (Incarnadine, Dutch Orange, and Verdigris). Reading through the list reminds me of when I was a child, browsing J. Crew catalogues for overpriced sweaters, wondering what kind of woman would wear a “harvest grape” cashmere shell or a “dusty cobblestone” merino turtleneck. It has the same preppy, old money allure. A person who would paint their bedroom Brinjal (“a sophisticated aubergine”) probably spent their childhood in a house with a drawing room, summering in some coastal region I’ve never heard of, and capering about in child-size loafers. They’re a competent sailor. They have never applied for Obamacare.

Plenty of paint companies have hues named for the color of salt-water-aged metal, including Donald Kaufman’s “Liberty Green,” Benjamin Moore’s “Lady Liberty,” Sherwin-Williams’s “Parisian Patina,” and Behr’s “Copper Patina.” And while once I might have argued that one paint color is correct, I don’t want to do that. Farrow & Ball’s Verdigris is no less real than Behr’s. It’s also no more true.

Frédéric-Auguste Bartholdi, Presentation Drawing of “The Statue of Liberty Illuminating the World,” 1875

I like verdigris, and all these greenish, eggy blues, because it reminds me that Tiffany doesn’t own turquoise. Neither do the mine owners in Colorado who are trying to brand their turquoise, nor does the silver company that bought up all the stones from a single town. You can own a stone and you can patent a color, but you can’t own the word or the meaning. The minute you try, you lose something.

Over a hundred years ago, the United States Army began looking into turning the Statue of Liberty back to her original copper color. “As might be expected, when the Statue of Liberty turned green people in positions of authority wondered what to do,” writes Frazier. “In 1906, New York newspapers printed stories saying that the Statue was soon to be painted. The public did not like the idea.” In the end, nothing was done. Change was accepted, and we let her green skin stay. And like a word moving through years, shifting its meaning, she continues to change, ever so slightly. As an architect told Frazier, verdigris is not opaque. It is “crystalline … you’re looking into it.” You’re seeing a century of change and molecular growth. You’re seeing into the past. There’s brown. There’s green.

FAQs

What is the color of verdigris? ›

Verdigris is the ur-turquoise. The name comes an Old French term, vert-de-Grèce (“green of Greece”). It is also sometimes known as “copper green” or “earth green,” since the pigment was commonly made from ground-up malachite or oxidized copper deposits.

Is verdigris blue or green? ›

Brief description of Verdigris:

A moderately-transparent bluish green with low stability. It's a copper acetate, used often, from antiquity through the Middle Ages, Renaissance and Baroque. Today is rarely sold as an artists pigment due to its toxic nature.

How do you get verdigris color? ›

The easiest way to make verdigris is to react copper metal with acetic acid. Copper is easy to get and common sources are scrap copper piping and old copper coins. If you are using old 1 and 2 pence coins it is worth using a magnet to see if they are solid copper as more recent ones have iron cores and so are magnetic.

Is verdigris oxidation? ›

Corrosion is the oxidation of copper; a chemical reaction between copper and oxygen in which copper oxide can be produced. The Greeks and Romans deliberately corroded copper to make a pigment called verdigris.

How do you use verdigris in a sentence? ›

Sentences Containing 'verdigris'

The pedestal, it appeared to me, was of bronze, and was thick with verdigris. Then I got a big pebble from the river, and came and hammered till I had flattened a coil in the decorations, and the verdigris came off in powdery flakes.

What color goes with verdigris? ›

'I love pairing verdigris green with deep, warm reds and terracotta,' explains Annie Sloan, founder of Annie Sloan. 'The key is to make sure the colours balance. Generally, green is a cool colour that recedes into the background.

What is another name for verdigris? ›

What is another word for verdigris?
colorationcorrosion
greennesspatina
rusttarnish

Why did the Statue of Liberty Turn green? ›

The Statue of Liberty's exterior is made of copper, and it turned that shade of green because of oxidation. Copper is a noble metal, which means that it does not react readily with other substances. The Statue's copper is only three-thirty-seconds of an inch thick and unusually pure.

What metal has verdigris? ›

Bronze, brass, and copper metals get verdigris because of exposure to air and wetness, especially saltwater. The Old French origin of verdigris literally translates to “green of Greece,” which can help you remember how to pronounce the word: VURR-de-Greece.

What is the chemical composition of verdigris? ›

Neutral verdigris is neutral copper acetate with the formula Cu(CH3COO)2·H2O. It can be prepared by solving basic verdigris in acetic acid.

Why does copper turn green when it oxidizes? ›

Copper will start to react with the oxygen in the air to form copper oxide. The copper oxide will continue reacting to oxygen over time. As the copper oxide continues to react with carbon dioxide and water in the air it coats the surface with that iconic blue-green patina colour.

Is verdigris green? ›

An elegant copper green

While happy and lively on first glance, Verdigris Green retains a reassuring feel and underlying elegance when used in the home.

Why does verdigris happen? ›

If you've seen an old, rusty penny, you've seen verdigris in nature; it's the greenish-blue patina that forms on copper, bronze or brass when it's exposed to moisture. Just take a look at this artist's reproduction of what a brand new Statue of Liberty must have looked like.

Is verdigris harmful to humans? ›

As a result, it was confirmed that verdigris is a substance that has virtually no toxicity whatsoever at all.

How do you clean verdigris? ›

To remove verdigris:
  1. Get a tube of cheap toothpaste and a soft toothbrush.
  2. Put a little toothpaste on the brush and brush in the direction of the metal.
  3. Wipe clean with a soft cloth like an old t shirt.
  4. Once you have removed all the verdigris, rinse the item and dry it completely before storing it away.

What is the meaning of the word verdigris? ›

: a green or greenish blue poisonous pigment resulting from the action of acetic acid on copper, consisting of one or more basic copper acetates, and formerly used in medicine.

What does it mean to be green in something? ›

If you say that someone is green, you mean that they have had very little experience of life or a particular job. He was a young fellow, very green, very immature. Synonyms: inexperienced, new, innocent, raw More Synonyms of green.

What is a good sentence for green? ›

"She bought green apples at the store." "You should eat more green salad." "They want to create green spaces in the city." "She walked through the green grass."

Is verdigris a pigment? ›

Verdigris is the common name for a green pigment obtained through the application of acetic acid to copper plates or the natural patina formed when copper, brass or bronze is weathered and exposed to air or seawater over a period of time.

Does verdigris do gold? ›

Depending upon the content of the alloying elements in your 18k gold (it could be copper) it could be subject to the bluish green patina know as verdigris, yes. Gold is not subject to corrosion, that is why it is used in so many scientific endeavors as it can be counted on to not break down.

Is verdigris soluble in water? ›

Verdigris paint is water soluble and the effects of painting will be lost by washing in water or by getting wet, but there may still be staining.

Is verdigris stable? ›

Although generally reliable and stable, Verdigris and Copper Resinates have a tendency to turn brown on the surface. Thankfully this affects relatively few paintings. Tintoretto (1519–1594), Saint George and the Dragon (c 1555), oil on canvas, 158.3 x 100.5 cm, The National Gallery, London. Wikimedia Commons.

What is the true color of the Statue of Liberty? ›

But did you know she wasn't always that colour? When France gifted 'Lady Liberty' to the US in 1885, it was a 305-feet statue with reddish-brown copper skin. The colour change to the present olive-green happened as a result of about 30 years' chemical reactions with the air in New York City harbour.

What are 5 facts about the Statue of Liberty? ›

5 Things You May Not Know About the Statue of Liberty
  • The statue represents a Roman Goddess. ...
  • The crown's spikes represent the oceans and continents. ...
  • Lady Liberty is struck by lightning 600 times every year. ...
  • Gustave Eiffel helped to build it. ...
  • Lady Liberty's face is modelled on the artist's mother.

Why don't they clean the green off the Statue of Liberty? ›

That patina shields the statue from the extreme elements of New York Harbor, like high winds, salt water and air pollution. Cleaning the green patina from the Statue of Liberty could do more harm than good, according to National Park Service spokesman Jerry Willis in a statement to AM New York.

Was Statue of Liberty always green? ›

Did you know the Statue of Liberty wasn't always green? When France gifted Lady Liberty to the U.S., she was a 305-foot statue with reddish-brown copper skin. Her color change is thanks to about 30 years' worth of chemistry in the air of New York City harbor.

What is green rust called? ›

Green rust is a type of iron compound with unstable properties that is formed by metal corrosion. Its formation also corresponds to the depassivation of steel and usually takes place when the chloride concentration or ratio to ions of hydrogen is greater than 1. Green rust is also known as fougerite.

How do you paint verdigris on metal? ›

How to Make It:
  1. Place the project on newspaper to protect your work surface. ...
  2. Spray the entire piece with one coat of Blue Ocean Breeze paint. ...
  3. Spray the piece with a light mist of water. ...
  4. Repeat Step 3 using Copper Brilliance; let dry.
26 Aug 2015

Can verdigris make you sick? ›

But verdigris as a chemical refers to a specific blue-green copper salt, copper(II) acetate, that is mildly toxic. A bit of verdigris in your food won't kill you but it will make you and your guests sick to your stomach.

How do you remove green oxidation from copper? ›

Here's how to clean copper with an old standby: vinegar.
  1. Mix 1/4 cup salt, 1/4 cup flour and enough vinegar to make a thick paste.
  2. Use a soft cloth to rub the paste on the surface of the copper.
  3. Buff the copper item until it shines.
  4. Rinse with warm water and dry thoroughly.
7 Jan 2021

Why do bronze statues turn green? ›

It is known as bronze disease because the reaction produces a green powder on the surface of bronze artifacts that resembles a fungus. This corrosion is much like rust on iron. This corrosion is caused by a circular set of reactions that involve the chlorides of a copper alloy and water.

When was verdigris first used? ›

It was used as a pigment from the Middle Ages until the 19th century. The word "verdigris" literally means "green of Greece" (vert-de-Grice), and has similar variations in Middle English and Old French. Painters valued verdigris for its rare, luminescent green color, but using it posed challenges.

What metal turns green when oxidized? ›

Color change on the surface is also seen evidently due to corrosion. Copper ( ) is a metal that naturally turns green over time on oxidation. Therefore, the metal which turns green when oxidized is Copper.

When copper turns green What is it called? ›

When you see that green layer on these metals (usually called patina or verdigris) it's because of a chemical reaction. The copper has reacted with oxygen, water, and carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Brass is an alloy that's usually made up of 67% copper and 33% zinc.

How long does it take for copper to turn green in real life? ›

In coastal regions or heavy-industrial areas, the natural patina typically forms within five to seven years. In the country and rural areas, where the level of sulfur dioxide in the atmosphere is relatively low, the patina formation takes 10 to 14 years to attain a dominant stage.

How long does verdigris take to form? ›

In its salient green form the patina, dependent on rain quantity and water composition, appears after approximately 8 to 15 years on flat surfaces that are strongly exposed to rain.

Is verdigris harmful on jewelry? ›

Answer: Yes, verdigris (the natural patina formed with the oxidization of copper) is not only a pain to clean, especially from intricate antique costume jewelry, but it is also a toxic substance.

Does vinegar remove green from copper? ›

Rinse with water. Another way to use these two ingredients to clean copper is to mix salt into vinegar to make a solution. With a clean, soft cloth, apply the solution to the object that needs to be cleaned and polish until copper begins to shine.

Does vinegar remove verdigris? ›

If you do notice unsightly green verdigris growing on your beautiful jewellery then don't worry all is not lost, it can be removed! Acidic substances such as lemon juice and vinegar can be used to remove verdigris.

Does vinegar turn copper green? ›

Soaking copper in white vinegar and salt will create a blue or green patina.

What is the green color on copper called? ›

Scientifically speaking, patina is the green or brown film that forms naturally on the surface of copper due to a series of chemical reactions. Copper forms a patina when exposed to oxygen and weathering over time.

Is verdigris poisonous to the touch? ›

As a result, it was confirmed that verdigris is a substance that has virtually no toxicity whatsoever at all.

What is the green colour of copper of called? ›

When exposed to the atmosphere, copper forms a layer of copper carbonate which has a green shade.

Is verdigris natural? ›

Verdigris is the common name for a green pigment obtained through the application of acetic acid to copper plates or the natural patina formed when copper, brass or bronze is weathered and exposed to air or seawater over a period of time.

What metal goes verdigris? ›

Bronze, brass, and copper metals get verdigris because of exposure to air and wetness, especially saltwater. The Old French origin of verdigris literally translates to “green of Greece,” which can help you remember how to pronounce the word: VURR-de-Greece.

Why do statues turn green? ›

The Statue of Liberty is green thanks to the copper patina effect. Essentially, the green color results from the copper coming into contact with water, oxygen, and carbon dioxide over time, causing a coating to build on the surface. Yet, instead of rusting, it morphs into a beautiful blue-green color.

What causes verdigris on copper? ›

is a mixture of basic green or blue copper acetates, which settles on copper or brass. It develops as a result to longer influence of weak acids with mostly organic compounds. Food remainders (fruit acid, acetic acid) as well as animal eliminations (urine acid) are included in the above-mentioned category.

Can verdigris be removed? ›

To remove verdigris: Get a tube of cheap toothpaste and a soft toothbrush. Put a little toothpaste on the brush and brush in the direction of the metal. Wipe clean with a soft cloth like an old t shirt.

What is oxidation on copper called? ›

Patina (/pəˈtiːnə/ or /ˈpætɪnə/) is a thin layer that variously forms on the surface of copper, brass, bronze and similar metals and metal alloys (tarnish produced by oxidation or other chemical processes) or certain stones and wooden furniture (sheen produced by age, wear, and polishing), or any similar acquired ...

How do you make copper verdigris? ›

Soaking copper in white vinegar and salt will create a blue or green patina. Other ways of doing this are to bury the copper in sawdust or crushed potato chips soaked in white vinegar.

Does pure copper turn green? ›

Copper naturally turns green over time as it reacts with oxygen in the air – a chemical reaction known as oxidation.

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