The Color of Money

It’s not a hard-fast Renaissance rule, but mutable green was often associated with those who worked or lived in the world of money, as opposed to those who were born into privilege or manual labor. Artists loved to experiment with their greens–verdigris, terre verte, malachite–and so you see emerald backdrops for a variety of subjects, but nearly every time a merchant or a moneylender was in the picture, he is in close proximity to green. Green was not yet of the earth, but still in the realm of humans, and attached to the more dynamic middle of society rather than the more steadfast upper or lower levels. That vibrant green, also attached to youth and fertility, adorned the merchant Arnolfini’s wife, and dominated the settings of his commercial successors, who appear to have dwelled in a world of green and gold, inside. Look at all these merchants from the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, beginning with Jan Gossaert’s confidant man of business, who appears to have been given a green halo of sorts.


Man Wearing Gold

Hans Holbein 1532

Bildnis-eines-jungen-Kaufmanns Hans Holbein

Jan Gossaert, Portrait of a Merchant, c. 1530, National Gallery of Art; Adriaen Isenbrant, Man Weighing Gold, c. 1515-1520, Metropolitan Museum of Art; Hans Holbein the Younger, Portrait of a Member of the Wedigh Family, probably Hermann Wedigh, c. 1530, Metropolitan Museum of Art. Hans Holbein the Younger, Portrait of a Young Merchant, probably Hans von Muffel, c. 1541, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna.

There is always a bright green cloth on which the money, or its instruments, rests. While the men above look like honest brokers, green was also used as the color of greed in the more satirical compositions of Northern Renaissance artists like Marinus Roymerswaele and Quentin Massys, which retain the setting but distort the faces or avert the gazes of bourgeois money-changers, scary tax collectors, and lawyers.

Quentin Massys Tax Collectors

Lawyers Office

Quentin Massys, The Tax Collectors, first quarter of the 16th century, Kunstmuseum Liechtenstein; Marinus Roymerswaele, The Lawyer’s Office, 1545, New Orleans Museum of Art.

I’m not sure that merchants and bankers and bureaucrats were aware of such color associations, but there is ample evidence of clothing consciousness in the Renaissance. A perfect example of self-fashioning through clothing choice is the amazing “Book of Clothes” by aspirational accountant Matthäus Schwarz of Augsburg, who commissioned 137 watercolors depicting outfits he wore for each stage and event of his life, from infancy to death. Discussed at length in Ulinka Rublack’s wonderful book, Dressing Up: Cultural Identity in Renaissance Europe (2010), Schwarz’s Klaidungsbüchlein seems strikingly modern to me–like a blog or a selfie–and is a great visual reminder of just how modernly materialistic this era really was. And while he was in his still-slim youth, Schwarz wore several striking green outfits.

Book of Clothes

More images of Schwarz’s Klaidungsbüchlein, which is at the Herzog Anton Ulrich Museum , here.

3 responses to “The Color of Money

  • Brian Bixby

    Odd the way phrases will strike people differently. I read the title of your post, and, being literal-minded and all, I thought immediately of the “Rainbow Notes,” the United States Notes issued by the U.S. Treasury as the series of 1869. If you go to the Wikipedia page below, scroll down to the pictures of the notes by denomination, and click on the pictures of the 1869 notes, you can see why they acquired that nickname:

  • Debbie Tegarden

    Dear Ms. Seger, I started subscribing to your newsletter because I was born in Salem and majored in colonial American literature—but I am completely hooked for so many unexpected reasons.
    This latest is fascinating, and I thought I’d point to a recent book on the subject from the company I work for:
    The author Pastoreau also discusses the Arnolfini bride, as well as the brilliant emerald suit of King Babar. Which reminds me to ask whether you have had the pleasure of seeing the version of the Arnolfini wedding with trunks?
    Not to be missed!
    Thank you so much for these witty and imaginative posts!
    Debbie Tegarden

    • daseger

      Thank you, Debbie, for your lovely comments and for your links! I am somewhat familiar with the Pastoreau book but have not had the chance to read it yet–I believe he also has works on black and blue! I have seen the Arnolfini work—amazing!

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