Matilda Scheurer and Frances Rollo were killed by emerald green.
History only remembers what is noteworthy at the time, and usually for a reason. We know the last few days of Matilda Scheurer and Frances Rollo, but will never know what these young ladies looked like or what they imagined for their future.
We do know that Frances was married, and was a mother to a four month old baby. They were sisters, and both worked in the flower making industry. Their mother, Louisa Scheurer was a widow, that had at least one more living daughter.
Emerald green was a vibrant mint-colour, and was created in Schweinfurt, Germany in 1814. It was developed in the attempt to improve the permanence of Scheele’s green that was made by a Swedish chemist Carl Scheele in 1775. Both colours were susceptible to blackening with exposure to sulphur and light. This proved a challenge for artists when blending other sulphuric colours such as cadmium yellow or vermilion. More important to Matilda and Frances is the deadly ingredient, arsenic, that makes up both of these greens. Their stories are just two of thousands that make up the tragic history of this brilliant colour.
The creation, and desire for this colour is in part, a response to the industrial age. People saw the factories outside their windows, and the diminishing green landscape around their cities, and wanted to capture the ideal of nature in their homes; verdant domesticity.
Visual artists used emerald green on their canvas. Cezanne, for example, used this colour in many of his scenic watercolour paintings. Some researchers claim this contributed to his diabetes. Others claim that the use of emerald green contributed to Monet’s blindness. Georg Friedrich Kersting and his paintings entitled the Embroidery Woman series, are a tribute to Scheele’s green: the walls, the chair on which the woman sits, and the thread that she is embroidering all glow in adoration of this colour. Edvard Munch also used it in his art. He painted a heartbreaking picture entitled, The Sick Child, that is believed to be of his sister Johanne Sophie, on her deathbed. Seeing the emerald green on this canvas, and connecting it to the thousands of untimely deaths due to this poison is a poignant testament.
Not all artists liked it; it would darken when exposed to sulphur or high temperatures. Artists who liked the colour had the choice to isolate pigments between varnish, which allowed for the vibrant colour and saved the patron from the toxic particles.
Rooms were decorated in wallpaper made with emerald green. Every room in the house could be adorned with this toxic beauty: from the front parlour to the children’s room. Napoleon Bonaparte, who had been in exile at St. Helena since his final defeat, loved the colour green. It was said to adorn the walls of his personal chambers, as well as his bathroom. A scrap that was collected by a visitor in 1820, and then was tested in the early 1990s revealed that the paper contained arsenic. Diaries that belonged to his valet, Louis Marchand, described Napoleon suffering from many symptoms associated with arsenic poisoning. In 2008, Italian scientists tested Napoleon’s hair, that of his son and of Josephine, and the results show that their hair has roughly 7 to 38 times more arsenic than normal. It is possible that this famous general suffered the same fate as Matilda and Francis.
To be continued…