For centuries, people have admired the greenish tinted patina covering bronze, copper, and brass statues, even if they may not have known its formal name: verdigris. The term comes from the French phrase “vert-de-Grice,” which means “green of Greece” — an acknowledgement of the country’s many green statues. Today, you can find examples of verdigris-covered statues in public squares, parks, college campuses, art museums, and, of course, cemeteries.
Standing one-hundred and fifty-six feet tall, the Statue of Liberty is the largest and most well-known example of verdigris. Although primarily made of steel, the statue is coated with sixty-thousand pounds of copper. It is the copper that allowed the verdigris to form, producing the iconic green image we are so familiar with.
When the Statue of Liberty was dedicated in 1886, however, it was a dark copper color, similar to that of a penny or common copper plumbing. By 1906, the statue was completely covered with the greenish tinted patina. When the government proposed removing the verdigris and painting the statue, there was a public outcry, as many had grown to love this gentle shade of green. Eventually, the Army Corps of Engineers determined the verdigris posed no threat to the statue, and so it remains to this day.
The Beauty Of Oxidation
Iron oxidation — the process associated with rust — occurs when oxygen combines with iron. This is a destructive process that ultimately destroys the metal. In contrast, copper oxidation is a protective process. Over time, naturally forming acetic acids (the substance that gives vinegar its flavor), water, salts, and various elements, combine to create a very thin layer of the greenish tinted patina on the surface of the copper.
This coating prevents the underlying copper from additional oxidation and deterioration. Although this process occurs naturally, you can artificially induce and accelerate the process by using a combination of salt, ammonia, vinegar, eggs, wine, and other ingredients. A search of youtube will yield many videos describing techniques for creating verdigris.
Bronze – Variations On A Theme
The period of history known as the Bronze Age, lasted from ~3300 BC to 300 BC. During that time, bronze played a crucial role in many aspects of life, not the least of which was the creation of statues and forging weapons of war.
Modern-day bronze statues are cast with an alloy of 88% copper and 12% tin. But that composition has varied significantly over the centuries depending on the costs of the materials and their availability, and the whims of the artists and foundries. Bronze alloy can also include other materials such as arsenic, nickel, zinc, lead, and antimony. This variability in the specific mix of metals used and their percentages explains — at least in part — why the greenish tinted patina from one statue may look different than that of another. This video provides a good example of how bronze statues are created.
The Many Shades Of Verdigris
Verdigris ranges from a very light green to a dark aqua, but can also contain hints of black, brown, orange, and yellow. The color of the Statue of Liberty is the one I most often associate with verdigris (top row, middle block).
Everyone is familiar with the phrase, “No two snowflakes are alike.” In a similar manner, the verdigris forming on any copper alloy will be unique. A good illustration is Daniel J. Oliver’s monument, in Allegheny Cemetery. Despite the angels being identical and positioned a few feet of one another, the verdigris on each is quite different.
Some of the factors influencing the formation of verdigris include:
- Types of metals used in the bronze casting
- Percentage of metals used
- Direction the statue faces
- General climate conditions — rain, humidity, sunlight, shade, wind direction
- Natural elements
- The pathways water takes along the statue’s contours
The Faces Of Verdigris
Combinations of the above can produce some striking artistic effects. For some statues, it appears that Mother Nature painted delicate details using many of the colors from the verdigris palette above.
People sometimes claim statues appear to be crying. It’s not hard to understand why: dark or light streaks of verdigris on the face of a statue can indeed resemble tears, as the pictures below show.
In other cases, verdigris is more uniform in color and application. The statues below appear as if the verdigris had been applied using a power airbrush, with some particles flaking off with the passage of time.
Painting With Verdigris — Buyer’s Remorse?
Artists have been harvesting verdigris from metal plates, and using it to create paints and stains for centuries. As the Hogg Angel’s limestone base shows, verdigris can soak into porous materials. This one sculpture also displays the full range of the verdigris color palette above.
Artists’ enthusiasm for using verdigris-based paints waned by the 19th century. They discovered such paints were not very stable, and could change color over time. The famous painting, The Mystery of the Nativity, by Sandro Botticelli (~1445-1510), contains pigments made from verdigris.
Scientists and art historians who have studied the painting believe that some of the green paint may have been much brighter than it now appears, and that some portions may have turned brown.
Because it can take decades and centuries for such color changes to occur, it is difficult to understand how much the verdigris-based pigments in many of the world’s most famous painting have changed since their creation. This is ironic considering the process of verdigris forming on statues has the opposite effect: turning shades of brown into light green.
“The novels, travel books and poems I read had a particular smell. The smell of cellars. An almost spicy smell, a mixture of dust and grease. Verdigris. Books today don’t have a smell. They don’t even smell of print.”
— Jean-Claude Izzo (Total Chaos)
Verdigris is Mother Nature’s means of beautifying and protecting copper-based alloys. If you are fortunate to have some bronze statues in your local cemetery, park, or town square, take some time to study their verdigris colors and patterns. You may be surprised how much beauty has been hiding in plain sight. You can also peruse our galleries for more examples of verdigris.
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