Left: Emile Nolde, “Portrait of the Artist and His Wife” (ca. 1932), watercolor. Collection Detroit Institute of Arts.
Out of the Blue
“Nothing is as tedious as the limping days [of winter],” decried Baudelaire. Our world is once again draped in a veil of blue. Summer’s yellow-orange glow has, of late, been rudely displaced by a cold, indifferent blast of winter chill. Landscapes, once verdant, appear as medieval tapestries, their muted tones of purple-gray, deep maroons, rich ochre and black now enshrouding us. Slanting early afternoon light extends trailing sapphire shadows of bare tree branches, like innumerable swaying, gnarled fingers, across vast expanses of snowy fields. While many welcome the season, others, like Sinclair Lewis, were not so inclined. “Winter is not a season, it’s an occupation,”he protested. xxxxxx
Blue is not just a color of the spectrum, it is for many, a frame of mind. The English language resorts to the word to describe low spirits, while the “Blues” is a uniquely American musical idiom bemoaning love lost and a dark-humored cataloguing of life’s misfortunes, backed by the languishing strains of a steel string guitar. When you’ve got the blues, says this 1949 Memphis Slim musical refrain: ‘Nobody loves me, nobody seems to care / Speaking of bad luck people, you know I’ve had my share.’
Escaping all this gloominess might only mean it’s time to raise your eyes skyward and take in that big blue dome overhead—the one that earns our life-sustaining planet the appellation, The Big Blue Marble. Unique in the universe, if not the galaxy, Earth’s thin layer of gases absorbs most of those nasty, poisonous, invisible rays from outer space, as well as filtering the sun’s visible light spectrum, bathing us in a cool, blue-hued light. Add a light confection of puffy cumulus clouds to the mix, and life can start feeling positive again. Blue not only surrounds us, it is ranked as ‘favorite color’ by a majority of people. Approaching blue in the right frame of mind opens up all kinds of historical and creative possibilities. So, shake off those blues and pay attention to BLUE!
The Funk and Wagnalls Dictionary lists no fewer than 250 different sources of variants on blue color, the vast majority derived from coal tar, or other chemical reactions, underscoring the difficulty early artisans encountered finding sources of blue that wouldn’t become ‘vagrant,’ prone to fading over time or when exposed to light. More permanent, synthetic blue dyes were a 19th century invention—welcomed after several thousand years of improvising—and their arrival on the scene would change the face of art and commerce, globally, thenceforth.
Left: Cave of Hands (Cueva de Manos), Santa Cruz, Spain, 30-25,000 BCE.
Blue was a latecomer among colors used in art and decoration, as well as language and literature, because of its elusive qualities. Reds, blacks, browns, and ochres—so ubiquitous in nature—are found in cave paintings from the Upper Paleolithic period; but deep blue remained a rarity. Blue was also not used for dyeing fabric until long after methods for fixing red, ochre, pink and purple were developed. This was in part due to its rarity as a naturally-occurring pigment, and its expense. Once discovered over 3,000 years ago in mineral form, in Afghanistan (Siberia, too), Lapis lazuli was ultimately transported over thousands of miles of trade routes to European markets. Need there grew over time, triggered in the early Renaissance era as demand for religious paintings emerged.
The mineral, Lapis lazuli, translates to ‘blue stone’ [note that our word, dilapidated—or, ‘falling stone’—derives from the same Latin stem]. Its claim to fame is its propensity to produce an intense, deep blue hue when crushed and added to linseed oil and egg white. This so-called, ultra-marine, means ‘from beyond the sea,’ or distant shores, not ‘ultimate’ blue, as commonly believed. It became the only color deemed worthy of portraying the robes of the divine Mary’s holy robes. But, this was not always the case. Over centuries, the Virgin Mary’s importance in Catholic liturgy was represented by the color of her vestments. Cost and rarity of pigment was the primary determiner in her figurative representation.
Right: Sandro Botticelliandro, The Annunciation (Cestello Annunciation), circa 1489-1490, tempera on wood panel. Collection: Uffizi Gallery, Florence.
Early Common Era Byzantine images of the virgin had her draped in purple, the most valuable dye in that period. Thirteenth century Italy gained access to Lapis lazuli, making ultramarine the color of choice for the divine mother’s wardrobe. In fifteenth century Holland, Mary was often portrayed in scarlet because it was the most expensive cloth available there. Mural paintings for the Church, and innumerable commissions for sacred themes on canvas and church altars placed upward market pressures on this precious commodity (only gold cost more, per ounce). Ironically, Marco Polo had noted the presence of deep veins of Lapis on his 1271 journey eastward, calling it “the finest in the world used to make ultramarine, along with very productive mines of silver, copper and lead.” But an additional diary entry suggests an aversion to bad weather compelling enough to keep his caravan China-bound—“It is a cold country.”
But, Lapis lazuli, a semi-precious stone, left, has been mined in Afghanistan for more than three thousand years, and was exported to all parts of the ancient world. In Iran and Mesopotamia, it was used to make jewelry and vessels. It was also used as inlay for the eyebrows on the funeral mask of King Tutankhamun.
The Egyptians were the first to figure out how to produce synthetic blue pigment. They noted that copper turned blue when it oxidized, and accelerated the process with other chemicals and heat to form a reasonable version of ‘Egyptian blue’ for use in glazing and painting. In Egypt, blue was also associated with the sky and with divinity. The Egyptian god Amun could make his skin blue so that he could fly, invisible, across the sky. Blue could also protect against evil; many people around the Mediterranean still wear a blue amulet, representing the eye of God, to protect them from misfortune.
Blue glass was manufactured in Mesopotamia and Egypt as early as 2500 BC, using the same copper ingredients as Egyptian blue pigment. They also added cobalt, which produced a deeper blue, the same blue produced in the Middle Ages in the stained glass windows of the cathedrals of Saint-Denis and Chartres.
The Greeks imported indigo dye from India, calling it indikon. They used Egyptian blue in the wall paintings of Knossos, in Crete, (2100 BC). It was not one of the four primary colors for Greek painting described by Pliny the Elder (red, yellow, black and white), but nonetheless it was used as a background color behind the friezes on Greek temples and to color the beards of Greek statues.
Rome imported indigo dye, but blue was considered the color of working class clothing; the nobles and rich wore white, black, red or violet. Blue was treated as the color of mourning. It was also viewed with trepidation as the color of barbarians; Julius Caesar reported that the Celts and Germans dyed their faces blue to frighten their enemies, and tinted their hair blue when they grew old. The Romans had many different words for varieties of blue, but two words, both of foreign origin, became the most enduring; blavus, from the Germanic word blau, which eventually became bleu or blue; and azureus, from the Arabic word lazaward, which became azure.
While blue was an expensive and prestigious color in European painting, it became a common color for clothing during the Renaissance. The rise of the color blue in fashion in the 12th and 13th centuries led to the creation of a thriving blue dye industry in several European cities. They made a dye called pastel from woad, a plant common in Europe, which had been used to make blue dye by the Celts and German tribes. Blue became a color worn by domestics and artisans, not just nobles. In 1570, when Pope Pius V listed the colors that could be used for ecclesiastical dress and for altar decoration, he excluded blue, because he considered it too common.
Right: Woad mill, Thuringia Germany (1752). This method was already on its way to extinction, competing with indigo from the East.
The process of making blue with woad was particularly long and noxious- it involved soaking the leaves of the plant for from three days to a week in human urine, ideally urine from men who had been drinking a great deal of alcohol, which was said to improve the color. The fabric was then soaked for a day in the urine, then put out in the sun, where as it dried it turned blue.
The pastel industry was threatened in the 15th century by the versatility and properties of indigo, made from a shrub widely grown in Asia. Indigo blue had the same chemical composition as woad, but it was more concentrated and produced a richer and more stable blue. In 1498, Vasco de Gama opened a trade route to import indigo from India to Europe. In India, the indigo leaves were soaked in water, fermented, pressed into cakes, dried into bricks, then carried to the ports London, Marseille, Genoa and Bruges. Later, in the 17th century, the British, Spanish and Dutch established indigo plantations in Jamaica, South Carolina, the Virgin Islands and South America, and began to import American indigo to Europe.
The countries with large and prosperous pastel industries tried to block the use of indigo. The German government outlawed the use of indigo in 1577, describing it as a “pernicious, deceitful and corrosive substance, the Devil’s dye.” In France, Henry IV, in an edict of 1609, forbade under pain of death the use of “the false and pernicious Indian drug”. It was forbidden in England until 1611, when British traders established their own indigo industry in India and began to import it into Europe.
Left:Early blue and white ware (ca.1335), Jingdezhen Region, China, launching ‘Chinoiserie’ style in Europe for next several hundred years.
The efforts to block indigo were in vain; the quality of indigo blue was too high and the price too low for pastel made from woad to compete. In 1737 both the French and German governments finally allowed the use of indigo. This ruined the dye industries in Toulouse and the other cities that produced pastel, but created a thriving new indigo commerce to seaports such as Bordeaux, Nantes and Marseille.
Among the many shades of blue, the one that carries a reputation for toxicity (like the lead found in white paint until the mid-20th century), is cobalt. As Lapis lazuli moved westward along trade routes from Afghanistan to Italy, the mineral cobalt was being exported from today’s Iran, eastward, to China, where it was a favorite glaze among porcelain-makers. Called “Mohammedan Blue” because of its Middle Eastern origins (where it was used in mosque tiles to symbolize the heavens), mid-millennium Chinese dynastic ceramic ware was distinctive for its patterns in rich blue violet, owing to its cobalt pigmentation. Unfortunately, the mining of cobalt comes with a liability—the co-presence of arsenic in cobalt deposits. Toxic in small amounts and lethal in larger quantities, cobalt was anathema to miners. For centuries, where cobalt was encountered in Persian silver mines, it was quickly discarded because it meant that arsenic was dangerously close at hand. It took a 19th century French chemist, Louis-Jaques Thénard to process cobalt into a harmless pigment. This opened the door for an affordable paint that could be employed by artists to rendered brilliant seas and skies, and return to portrayals of garments no longer as dear to the artist as the original might have been to its owner.
Left: Johannes Vermeer, Meisje met de parel, c. 1665. Mairitshuis, The Haag.
In 1709, a German druggist and pigment maker named Diesbach accidentally discovered a new blue while experimenting with potassium and iron sulphides. The new color was first called Berlin blue, but later became known as Prussian blue. By 1710 it was being widely used by painters, and more than 150 years later, still employed by the French impressionist painters. Beginning in 1820s, Prussian blue was imported into Japan through the port of Nagasaki. It was called bero-ai, or Berlin Blue, and it became popular because it did not fade like traditional Japanese blue pigment, made from the dayflower. Prussian blue was used by artists like Hokusai, in his famous wave block print, and his contemporary, Hiroshige.
Right: Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849), The Great wave off Kanagawa,” Hokusai’s most famous print, the first in the series 36 Views of Mount Fuji.
With the development of the professional field of architecture, the color Prussian blue was adopted in the later 19th century as the color of choice for design configurations, or ‘blue prints.’ For years, the Crayola crayon company produced a blue stick called Prussian blue, but late in the 20th century, changed the name to ‘dark blue,’ because they were concerned that no one would know what ‘Prussian’ referred to.
Another ‘blue note’ about blue, and one that still resonates today: It was essential in the American struggle for independence from Britain in the 18th century, that soldiers could distinguish friend from enemy in the fog of war. The British red coats stood out on the battlefield, making them easy targets in battle. It was Washington, himself, who selected dark blue as the fledgling government’s official issue for Continental troops. Blue jackets with tan trim during the American Revolution became the uniform of the day.
Left: Charles Wilso Peale, George Washington (1779). colors of Continental Army (blue/tan) were adopted from English Whip Party who sympathised with the Colonies. US Capitol Collection.
Blue was the color of liberty and revolution in the 18th century, but in the 19th, it increasingly became the color of government authority, the uniform color of policemen and other public servants. It was considered serious and authoritative, without being menacing. In 1829, when Robert Peel created the first London Metropolitan Police, he made the color of the uniform jacket a dark, almost black blue, to make the policemen look different from soldiers, who until then had patrolled the streets. The New York City Police Department, modelled after the London Metropolitan Police, was created in 1844, and in 1853, they were officially given a navy blue uniform, the color they wear today.
Blue is more than a mere color. It can become a source of identity. In the 20th century, it became possible to own your own color of blue. The French artist Yves Klein, with the help of a French paint dealer, created a specific blue called ‘International Klein blue,’ right: ‘Blue Venus’ (1960), which he patented. It was made of ultramarine combined with a resin called Rhodopa, which gave it a particularly brilliant color. The Los Angeles Dodgers baseball team developed its own blue, called ‘Dodger blue,’ and several American universities invented new blues for their colors.
Below, left: Vincent van Gogh, “The Starry Night” (June, 1889), oil on canvas, depicts the view (with the notable addition of an idealized village) from the east-facing window of his asylum room at Saint-Rémey de Provence, just before sunrise. Collection, MoMA, NY.
In a classic use of blue to set a mood, Vincent van Gogh, “Starry Night” pits an infinite range of blues against yellows, oranges and deep greens. His ultramarine night sky, swirls and heaves above the earth, as if buffeted by invisible winds, drawing the eye into the farthest reaches of the universe. Glowing stars and a crescent moon penetrate the gloom, seemingly stitched in place by the artist’s impasto technique. It is a telling study in the power of color to frame a narrative: a slumbering world, immersed in a blue reverie, lies nestled and oblivious to the cold, blue tumult above. A cypress tree spirals surrealistically upward—a richly symbolic, perhaps autobiographical bridge between the two realities. Is there promise in this painting? Does night ultimately give way to day? Will a cold, winter’s night eventually yield to a summer’s morning? In the words of John Steinbeck, “What good is the warmth of summer, without the cold of winter to give it sweetness.”
Thanks for fighting the winter blues with a visit to ARTES Magazine.
Wishing You a Happy and Healthy New Year,
Richard J. Friswell, Managing Editor
Read other color articles on ARTES: