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The Journey of Ultramarine Blue

Updated: May 20, 2020


Art is highly intricate yet a vital part of every culture, not solely in terms of its multiplicity of forms and types, however additionally in terms of its historical and cultural roots. In what period a particular art form came into existence? Who created it and for whom? What does it mean? What were the techniques practiced in that period? Answers for these queries lie in the heart of art historical inquiry. There are numerous ways to analyze art and these have revolutionized over time. One of them is to study the evolution of a precious colour used for building our divine art world.

The timeline of art begins over 30,000 years ago and takes us through a series of stages that reflects the evolution of art. The one colour that played a significant role in bringing change in art history is ‘Ultramarine Blue’; unlike other naturally occurring colours, it was an overwhelming task to acquire blue pigment. Even after a long time, the source for blue colour was undiscovered in the western art world, any procedure to obtain perfect shade of blue remained unknown. Since this colour was found in petite supply, it was sought to show-off the riches and wealth and carries a history of international trade, inventions, and role of artists and patrons which also helps in understanding the evolution of the art world.

Arab sailors had bought a precious stone that possessed the colour so enchanting that it changed art in dramatic ways. The stone, which for centuries was said to be mined in the mountains of northern-Afghanistan, is known as “Lapis Lazuli” that appears like a fragment of sky and this tough stone was transformed into a finished product as “Ultramarine Blue”. A huge effort that was put in to get the required colour was so commendable that it not only brings home to know the importance of colour but also shows the power of art.

Today, we are surrounded by bright blue things except for folks in the late Middle Ages this colour was a revolution. It was brighter, purer and stronger than any blue they had ever known and within just a few decades of this remarkable discovery, blue began to ooze into western art. It made its way to their mythological manuscripts and was widely used to decorate their sacred words and background of the biblical scenes. In the 14th century, a pioneering artist Giotto Di Bondone (1267-1337) also known as the father of Italian Renaissance, not only dared to use this colour in such abundance that resulted in an elevation of this one colour to divide status but also took a turn away from the medieval style of spiritual representation in painting. He frescoed the Arena Chapel’s whole surface, including the walls and ceiling. They were commissioned by a wealthy banker Enrico Scrovegni. The fresco cycle shows the life of Christ and Virgin Mary, which was the grandest form of religious art in that period, and the cycle is unusually large and comprehensive, contemplating the ambition of the commission. The marvelous blue ceiling is a depiction of heaven, where at the centre of the vault are Madonna and Jesus as the suns and prophets as planets, painted in gold. Due to its hefty price, the colour was reserved for the most lucrative commissions that was the church and royalties, specifically for Virgin Mary, for instance in “Madonna enthroned with Saints” (1410) by Lorenzo Monaco, Florence, “Visitation” (1445) by Rogier Van Der Weyden, “Rest on the Flight into Egypt” (1510) by Gerard David, and “The Virgin in Prayer” (1650) by Sassoferrato.

It was in Venice, the spiritual home of blue where the colour was liberated from the grip of church. In this moment, Titian played a major part. Jacopo Pesaro commissioned Titian to paint “Pesaro Madonna” for a chapel that his family acquired in 1518, at Frari Basilica in Venice. In this altarpiece, he broke with century’s long tradition of placing the Virgin Mary and Jesus in the centre, and gave that place to St. Peter, dressed in a blue robe with a striking yellow garment draped over him. If we study its geometric algorithm, the perspective is off-centered and when we follow the orthogonal lines of two asymmetrical steps at the foot of St. Peter, we can notice how these lines intersect at a vanishing point to the right of the canvas. The first triangle is measured from the angels at the top to the base aligning the Winning flag and Madonna’s robe, while the other triangle includes St. Peter and the Pesaro’s family aligned with Madonna’s figure. Unlikely from other earlier renaissance works, such as Masaccio’s “Tribute Money” or Leonardo’s “Last Supper”, where the vanishing point lies at the centre of the painting in an area of primary visual importance. Titian’s obsession with ultramarine blue can be fully understood by his “Bacchus and Ariadne” (1521-23), which was commissioned by Alfonso d’Este, Duke of Ferrara, as a part of a decorative scheme for a small room in the ducal palace. The artwork illustrates mythological texts by the Latin poets Catullus and Ovid. In around 1967, the painting was gone for restoration process, under the intensive care of London’s National Gallery, where the Chief Restorer Mr. Arthur Lucas took upon the task to remove a thick layer of varnish and dirt. As he proceeded, he found patches of most brilliant strokes of blues and if we see the painting diagonally, half of the painting is in blue which must have cost an utter fortune. In this painting, ultramarine is used to paint Ariadne’s cloak, whose character is further away from that of Virgin Mary. This is where ultramarine blue got stripped of conventions and got to be used for pleasure and beauty. However, the ultramarine blue pigment remained to be more precious just like gold. As the stories go, even Michelangelo in 1500s couldn’t afford this colour and left his painting “The Entombment”, unfinished. The artist of “Girl with a Pearl Earring”, Johannes Vermeer, with a desire for fine application of the prized pigment in this painting, proceeded to mire his family in debt.

Ultramarine blue along with Prussian blue that was invented later in the 1700s, made their way along with the evolution in the art-world and when artists stepped into their deepest feelings they repeatedly called on blue. It dances in dreams of Paul Gauguin’s “The Sleeping Child” (1884); embraces the private passions of Edvard Munch’s “Kiss by the Window” (1892), and Vincent Van Gogh painted the sky with all the shades of blues to capture the enchanted night sky in “Starry Night over the Rhone” (1888) and a year later he painted “The Starry Night”, again using the new shades of blue to create a dazzling, vibrant and moving night sky.

Pablo Ruiz Picasso, a Spanish painter and one the most influential artist of the 20th century, painted a series of monochromatic paintings using shades of all blues, mostly Prussian blue, which is known as ‘The Blue Period’. The first of his blue period paintings was “Casagemas in His Coffin” (1901) following his friend Carlos Casagemas’s suicide and this was the time when the artist sank into severe depression. He painted several paintings in his despair including “Self-Portrait” (1901), “The Blue Room” (1901), “La Vie” (1903), “The Blind Man’s Meal” (1903), and “The Old Guitarist” (1903). His palette gave a melancholy phase yet a haven to hide our own despondency in shades of colour blue.

The one artist, who stretched this colour in almost every genre of art that we know today, is Yves Klein. For him, ultramarine blue was a spiritual colour and a symbol of infinity. According to Artsy’s biography of Klein, he said “Blue is beyond dimensions, whereas the other colours are not. All colours arouse specific ideas, while blue suggests at most the sea and the sky and they, after all, are in actual, visible nature what is most abstract.” He made monochromes of blue and exhibited them in a private exhibition in 1950. These monochromes held a single and balanced shade of ultramarine blue. To achieve this perfect luminosity, he worked with a French chemist and created a medium for blue pigment and resulting colour was bright, glossy and smooth, which became his trademark and in 1961, he patented ‘International Klein Blue’. Klein featured in a performance art “Anthropometries of Blue Epoch”, naked women covering themselves with International Klein Blue paint and imprinting themselves on huge canvases. He created a blue revolution so that everyone could share and enjoy his new colour and used this colour in almost every work ranging from installation, sculpture, performance and painting.

The journey of ultramarine blue has endured drastic alterations and has crafted a map to study the evolution of art from traditional academy to the 21st century contemporary art. Once the most veraciously sought pigment is now available in its finest and accessible forms as the scientific inventions enrich over time.

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