Accessible Art History
History of Color: Blue
Welcome back to the Accessible History Blog. For this week’s post, I’m continuing on our journey through the history of color. I’ve finally arrived at the final of the primary colors: blue. Unlike the other two, red and yellow, blue isn’t commonly found in nature. This makes it quite an interesting one to study! So to learn more, then keep on reading!
In my study of red and yellow, I discussed how they were often used in prehistoric art. However, this isn’t the case with blue. In fact, the first time we see blue pop up in the artistic/historical record is around 6,000 years ago. Lapis lazuli, native to Afghanistan, was acquired via trade and ground to make pigment. This semi-precious stone’s brilliant blue
comes from its mineral composition, mainly lazurite, a silicate mineral of the sodalite group. However, due to its rarity, lapis lazuli was only available to the people that could afford it, mainly royalty and the nobility.
But, the Egyptians are known for their ingenuity! They loved the color so much, they were determined to find a way to replicate it without having to use the expensive stone. So, the ancient Egyptians developed a pigment that historians have dubbed “Egyptian Blue”. It is made of silica, lime, copper, and alkali. In addition, it could be applied to nearly every surface (papyrus, stone, wood, etc), making it incredibly versatile.
However, unlike the Egyptians, ancient Greeks and Romans didn’t have a word for the color blue! For example, the famous author Homer described the sea as “wine red” in his works! However, once the Romans encountered blue via the Celts, they saw it as barbaric and scary. This was because the tribes would cover themselves in blue paint before battle. In addition, Celts were more likely to have the genetic disposition for blue eyes. This made blue, in the eyes of the Romans, a mysterious and terrifying color!
Like the Ancient Egyptians, Chinese artisans also loved to use the color blue! However, they derived their pigment through the use of cobalt. They received it via trade with Persia. In
fact, it was considered rarer than gold and was therefore quite expensive! Once acquired, the artisans would use it in their porcelain designs. Frequently, these would include Islamic themes because the porcelain would be traded back to Persia for more cobalt and/or other goods.
In the 16th century, a new way to create blue pigment was discovered. It was plant based, from the Indigofera tinctoria plant, which made it far more accessible than either lapis lazuli or cobalt. The best part about this new dye, called Indigo, is that it is stable and vibrant. Indigo has been used nearly universally since it’s discovery and the most famous example is none other than Levi’s Jeans!
Now that I’ve discussed the history of blue, let’s dive into its symbolism! Firstly, is the Virgin
Mary herself. Because blue pigment was rare and expensive, it was only used for the most important subjects. And who would be more important than the Mother of God? Because she is almost always shown wearing a blue cloak, the color has come to symbolize purity and humility.
Along the same vein, royalty was often shown wearing blue. This was not only because the cost of blue pigment was something only royalty could afford, but also because it came to project power and majesty.
Blue has also come to symbolize strong emotion - particularly sadness. How many times have we heard the phrase “feeling blue”? One fantastic example of this is Picasso’s Old Guitarist from 1903-04. The deep blue tones, the man’s posture, and his ripped clothes all give the work a depressive and tragic air.
Blue is one of the most enigmatic colors in our world. Because it’s not found in nature, humans have worked tirelessly to capture it. This search continues to the modern day! In 2009, an Oregon State University scientist created a new, vibrant blue called YInMn Blue from a collection of rare earth elements!
I hope you enjoyed this examination of the primary colors! Make sure to keep an eye out for the next set of posts on the secondary colors!
Mask of King Tutankamun. CC 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons
Figure of lion, ca. 1981–1640 B.C.E. Public Domain via Metropolitan Museum of Art
Ming Dynasty Porcelain Dish. CC 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons
Madonna of Humility by Fra Angelico. C. 1430 CE. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons