Blue: The History of a Color

Blue: The History of a Color
by Michel Pastoureau; Markus I. Cruse, Translator

English language edition published by Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ, 2018
216 pp., illus. 90 col. Trade, $35.00
ISBN: 978-0-691-18136-3.

Reviewed by
Giovanna L. Costantini
August 2020

“Sapphire is a truly celestial stone,” writes Michel Pastoureau in Blue: The History of a Color. “It is often compared to the color of the sky and is said to have healing powers.”  Pastoureau’s fifth book in a series that includes the colors Black, Green, Red and Yellow, draws together another stunning collection of artworks whose resplendent color has long captivated artists and viewers alike. While acknowledging scientific analyses of color composition, visual perception, human psychology, subjectivity and linguistic relativity, Pastoureau’s study is premised on the conviction that a history of color is a social history in which color’s meanings and conventions, known historically as iconography, require a phenomenological method of inquiry relative to the group to which it is assigned.

Like other works in the series, this volume addresses the multimedia, interdisciplinary uses of color among Western European societies from prehistory to the modern era, especially symbolic values that have been codified in textual sources. In so doing, it investigates the mineral composition of pigments; economic factors and trade patterns relevant to the color’s use and development over time; blue’s etymology, including names, definitions and varying connotations; chemical components that effect the color’s appearance under diverse circumstances; indicative customs of dress and their social codes; dyeing techniques; the color’s place in daily life and material culture; religious significance; scientific theories; and qualities conveyed through art. While it is neither limited to the Middle Ages, nor a complete history of the color in Western culture, the text’s five chronological divisions place decided emphasis on two periods: the High Middle Ages and the Early Renaissance from the twelfth to the fifteenth centuries; and the years extending from the Revolution to the establishment of the Third Republic in France from the late eighteenth to the mid-nineteenth centuries. These emphases correspond to more fully developed thematic interests in areas of cloth dyeing, trade in color-producing substances, the use of color in costume, heraldic signage and the history of blue in the construction of French national identity as encoded in the French flag.

A sacred fish from Egypt from the first century BCE illustrates the use of minerals and semi-precious stones such as azurite, lapis lazuli and turquoise, not only for jewelry and funerary objects, but also as components of ultramarine and other pigments utilized in tomb paintings. Lapis, specked with gold (iron pyrite) known as “fool’s gold,” came largely from Iran and Afghanistan, where these regions continued to supply the West with the very expensive stone from antiquity to the Middle Ages. The rapturous beauty of stained glass in thirteenth century cathedrals—described by Abbott Suger as jewel-like radiance evocative of the ineffable light of the celestial kingdom—was attained by adding cobalt, ground to resemble sapphire, as a smalt to molten glass. Lapis and azurite contributed to the brilliant ultramarine hues of illuminated manuscripts such as Les Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry and other Books of Hours produced in France and Belgium throughout the fifteenth century. It was also lapis that imbued the gold-studded vaults of Giotto’s Arena Chapel and Michelangelo’s Sistine Ceiling with transcendent luminosity. Vermeer, whom Pastoureau names as the greatest painter of the seventeenth century, achieved his incomparable handling of light from lapis lazuli, discretely applied to the surface in a manner compared to visual music.

An emphasis on high medieval and northern Renaissance painting makes slight mention, however, of the decorative arts, particularly ceramics, that appear in many Dutch Golden Age paintings. A major source of European commerce during the seventeenth century, blue and white vessels produced in China and Japan made of kaolin (white clay) and decorated with cobalt blue pigments originally imported from the Middle East, came to be heavily traded throughout the East and West, especially by the Dutch East India Company. During the seventeenth century, a taste for “China Blue” oxides utilized in Oriental stoneware provided a catalyst for the emergence of Holland’s distinctive Delftware industry, which rapidly usurped China’s preeminence in porcelain production. In this case a taste for Delftware’s distinctive “Delft Blue” hues and later tube colors marketed as “Old Holland Blue” originated in commercial interests to produce a less expensive, competitive alternative to popular imported Chinese porcelain. The same could be said of Royal Copenhagen porcelain founded in Copenhagen in 1775.

Pastoureau’s history of dyes examines plant-based products utilized by early populations, especially woad, also known as “Indian stone,”a flowering plant whose leaves are crushed to produce a blue pastel colorant; and indigo, also a plant, grown in bushes throughout the Middle East, India and Africa that was imported during the twelfth century mainly by Italian merchants. Indigo’s leaf tips yielded a deeply saturating color long favored among Mediterranean civilizations. It was not until the sixteenth century with the discovery of indigo in the New World, that its distinctive blue color became more prevalent in European garments of cotton cloths that could be stained in a greater variety of tones. This use of indigo colorants in dyestuffs led to the creation of the artificial pigment Prussian Blue, employed among plein-air painters and decorative artisans of the later nineteenth century, especially the Impressionists.

The most developed sections of Pastoureau’s study are devoted to “Blue France,” in which the role of color as a politicized symbol is traced from France’s Capetian line of French monarchs, whose heraldic symbol l’azur semé de fleurs de lis d’or (blue adorned with gold lilies of the valley) derives from Marian imagery as a reflection of the Virgin’s role as protectress of the kingdom. Thus, Charlemagne is rendered in a thirteenth century miniature garbed in a blue mantle embroidered with gold fleurs-de-lis. By the late Middle Ages blue had become the color of kings and nobility, eventually extending to the waistcoats of many military officers throughout Europe. During the later eighteenth century, the cockade was born, an emblematic rosette of ribbons generally pinned to a tricorne or cocked hat in colors as variable as black, red, white and blue. Stirred by Napoleonic fervor and later by the American Revolution, those of rebellious sentiment in France adopted a tricolor insignia, while monarchists identified with the white cockade of the Bourbon Ancien Régime. From 1794, the tricolor flag, a symbol of popular sovereignty, national and international patriotism, civic order and legitimacy, was instituted, with “political blue” declared the color of the French Republic’s defenders.

Pastoureau’s survey underscores the profoundly variable and cultural nature of color’s perception and interpretation, one that belies chronologic and ethnographic categorizations. Yet Pastoureau’s narrative is enticing in its anecdotes of Celts and Germans who dyed their bodies blue to terrify opponents; Breton women painted blue in orgiastic rituals; diabolical fools in multicolored costumes; and farcical Roman giants of great height, obesity, curly red hair and blue eyes. The volume also luxuriates in such imagery as the enchanted gardens of the Villa Livia; the bejeweled mosaics of Ravenna’s Mausoleum of Galla Placidia; the limpid tints of grisaille miniatures; impetuous sketches from Picasso’s Blue Period; and the geometric silks of Malam Suleiman. It is visual music indeed.