The Secret History of the Color Blue

By Google Arts & Culture

We've got the blues... - By Maude Bass-Krueger

Portrait Relief of Claude Pascal (1962) by Yves KleinGalleria Civica di Arte Moderna e Contemporanea Torino

If you’re American or European, blue might be your favorite color (it wins the polls as most popular), but did you know that it has a long and fascinating history? From barbarians, to royals, to workers, blue garments have been worn for thousands of years. But when used as a pigment for painting, blue has an altogether different story as the rarest and most precious shade of all. Some artists even went into debt in order to use the color! Scroll down to read about these painter’s blues…

Painted roundel with portraits of a man and a woman (-20/20)British Museum

1. Barbaric blue

The Greeks and Romans didn’t have a word for the color blue. For Homer, the sea was “wine-red”. Blue was associated with the barbaric Celts who supposedly dyed their bodies blue for battle, women with blue eyes were thought to have loose morals, and descriptions of the rainbow in Ancient Greece and Rome omitted blue altogether. But although the color was not named, it still existed. In fact, it was one of the several colors used for clothing, as seen on this woman’s tunic from a decorative medallion painted on a house in Pompeii.

Blue-painted potBritish Museum

2. Synthetic blue

The Egyptians loved the precious stones lapis and turquoise so much that they invented the first synthetic blue pigment in order to affordably copy their unique color. “Egyptian blue” was made by mixing silica, lime, copper, and alkali, and it could be used on stone, wood, plaster, papyrus and canvas. The many decorative objects that have survived until today attest to the presence of blue in Egyptian life.

This blue-painted pot made during the Eighteenth Dynasty (c. 1543–1292 BCE) is just one of the hundreds of “Egyptian blue” artifacts that can be found on Google Arts & Culture.

Louis XII of France Kneeling in Prayer (1498 - 1499)The J. Paul Getty Museum

3. Royal blue

In Early Modern Europe, blue textile dye was made from woad, a flowering plant native to the Mediterranean. During the Middle Ages, the cultivation of woad in England, France, and Germany helped many towns and regions become extraordinarily rich. However, because the dye was expensive to produce and not steadfast, it was used by the wealthy and became associated with nobility.

The working class wore brown and green while the Kings wore blue. This 15th century illumination shows the French Kings Charlemagne and Louis wearing rich robes of ermine fur, blue silk, and gold embroidery. Louis XII kneels on a blue silk cushion and even his sword is blue!

Virgin and Child with Female Saints (1500)The Morgan Library & Museum

4. Virginal blue

Blue wasn’t only an expensive textile dye, it was also an extremely expensive pigment for painters (more on that to come...). Because of its cost, it was only used for the most important subjects.

In the Renaissance, nobody was more important than the Virgin Mary. Because she was almost always painted wearing blue, the color became synonymous with purity, humility, and the divine.

Bacchus and Ariadne (1520-3) by TitianThe National Gallery, London

5. Ultramarine bling

Painters had to grind up the semi-precious stone lapis lazuli in order to make ultramarine, the deep blue pigment that is the hallmark of many Renaissance paintings. The name comes from the Latin ultramarinus, meaning “beyond the sea”, because the stones were imported from mines in Afghanistan by Italian traders in the 14th and 15th century. Ultramarine was so expensive that some paintings were never finished because the painter couldn’t afford to buy more pigment. Even Michelangelo couldn’t afford it and Raphael used it only for a top coat.

But Titian was famous for his lavish use of ultramarine, as seen in this painting of Bacchus and Ariadne with its vast expanse of blue sky.

Dish (14th century) by UnknownMinneapolis Institute of Art

6. Prized porcelain

Chinese blue and white porcelain has been highly prized since the 9th century. In the 14th century, China began to mass produce very fine, translucent white and blue porcelain in the town of Jingdezhen. This "blue and white ware", as it was known, used cobalt brought through trade routes from Persia. Cobalt was twice as expensive as gold. Once made, the porcelain was then sold back to the Middle East. Many of these beautiful pieces mix Chinese porcelain techniques with Islamic motifs.

The Pegasus Vase (1786/1786)British Museum

7. If you can’t copy it…

The Europeans tried to copy Chinese porcelain (unsuccessfully!) for hundreds of years. Indeed, China and porcelain were so intertwined, that porcelain was often simply called ‘china.’ When the secrets were eventually leaked in the early 18th century, manufacturers sprang up all over Europe attempting to make local equivalents.

Josiah Wedgwood set up his English firm in 1759 where he perfected a new technique called ‘jasperware’. It took him 3,000 attempts to get the right shade of 'Portland Blue' for his first piece, which was inspired by the Roman-era "Portland Vase" on view in the British Museum.

Textile (19th century) by UnknownCooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum

8. Color Wars

Blue was expensive to use for paintings and porcelain, but it was much cheaper to use for clothing. Over time, blue fabric became so common in Europe that it was worn by men and women from all social classes. But the arrival of a new blue dye called ‘indigo’ rocked the European textile trade in the 16th century.

Imported from Asia, indigo was more concentrated and produced a richer, more stable blue. Fearing for the national textile economy, the French, German, and British governments tried to block the import of indigo in the 16th and 17th centuries. The blockade was in vain and indigo eventually replaced woad, destroying several industrial centers in the process.

Woodstock (1969-08) by Bill EppridgeLIFE Photo Collection

9. Blue Jeans

Jean fabric was first produced in Genoa, Italy in the 17th century; the French city of Nimes copied the technique shortly after (‘de Nimes’...aka ‘denim’). The cotton twill fabric, dyed with indigo, was sturdy and washable, making it perfect for workers. Levi Strauss kicked the fabric up a notch when he patented the use of metal rivets to reinforce the seams on denim pants in 1873. And the rest is history…

Portrait Relief of Claude Pascal (1962) by Yves KleinGalleria Civica di Arte Moderna e Contemporanea Torino

10. The purest blue of all

Between 1947 and 1957, the French artist Yves Klein perfected what he considered the purest blue of all. He registered International Klein Blue (IKB) as a trademark and the deep ultramarine became his signature. He painted over 200 canvases with the color, as many sculptures, and even painted models in IKB so they could “print” their bodies onto canvas. Klein considered his blue “extra-dimensional,” meaning that it would take the viewer outside the canvas itself. Trippy!

Today blue textile dyes and pigments are mainly synthetic, but the color still holds the same powerful symbolism as it did when it was a rare and costly shade. Flags, sports teams, and uniforms often use blue to symbolize unity and power. But the color is also ambiguous: “to feel blue” denotes sadness, while “blue skies” are equated with optimism and happiness. What does blue mean to you?

Explore more artworks in shades of blue here.

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