Published in the Wall Street Journal, Dec. 29, 2017
A catalog of 75 colors and their histories, from lead white to pitch black. Laura J. Snyder reviews ‘The Secret Lives of Color’ by Kassia St. Clair.
The Swedish apothecary Carl Wilhelm Scheele was studying the element arsenic in 1775 when he came across the yellowish-green compound copper arsenite and recognized its commercial potential as a pigment. Soon “Scheele’s green” was used to produce wallpaper, fabric, and artificial flowers and fruits. Charles Dickens was keen to redecorate his entire house in the fashionable shade. Fortunately, he reconsidered. People were dying from the arsenic-laced items: a child who sucked on fake grapes, a flower maker—even, reportedly, Napoleon Bonaparte, who perished in exile on St. Helena island in a damp room covered in green wallpaper.
Kassia St. Clair, a freelance journalist and a former books and arts editor at the Economist, recounts the tale of this perilous pigment in her charming book “The Secret Lives of Color.” The book’s short chapters—“something between a potted history and a character sketch for the 75 shades that have intrigued me the most,” as she puts it—grew out of a column she writes for Elle Decoration and retain the appealing conversational tone of a design magazine.Read more