Blue in the early modern history
At the end of the middle-ages, Europe had become a gloomy place regarding colour. After the black death had raged and with the introduction of The Inquisition, the Christian world chose sombre colours to express humility and virtue. Incipient from Spain, the 15th century became the century of the colour black, from which the colour blue profited immensely, because red and other “louder” colours were largely forbidden.
The leaders of the Protestant reformation were preaching a kind of colour puritanism in matters of religion, art and social life. Colours played a major role in the catholic liturgy and therefore symbolised the vanity and wastefulness of the Catholic Church. Red was especially regarded as the colour of luxury and sin for the protestants. As blue traditionally wasn’t part of this Catholic colour system, the Protestant Reformation accepted blue besides black, white, grey and brown as a decent colour. This spare use of colour was naturally adopted by protestant painters like Rembrandt for example.
During the Renaissance, the trend in art was towards realism. Artists discovered the linear perspective and studied light, shadow and anatomy. Colours were used to create a three-dimensional space, in which blue played a major role. Leonardo da Vinci was fascinated by the impact of colours and filled notebooks with his observations. He realised that blue created the illusion of distance: ”… make the first building in its own color; the next most distant make more blue, at another distance bluer yet and that which is five times more distant make five times more blue.” Da Vinci called this painting technique the aerial perspective. As the landscape recedes in his famous Mona Lisa, the mountains and the water become progressively paler and bluer to disappear into a vaporous distance.
The blue background of the Mona Lisa was painted with ultramarine, which was still the most expensive and adored pigment, being even more valuable per ounce than gold. The painters of the Renaissance often had to find a patron to commission a work, if they wanted to use it. The contract of commission would say exactly how much ultramarine had to be used for which areas of the painting and of which quality the pigment had to be. To cut costs without losing vibrancy, some painters used a base layer of a cheaper blue pigment and only covered the surface with ultramarine.
Titian is known for his generous use of pure ultramarine, which he ground either finely or quite roughly to get subtle variations in the blue. Like many of his Italian contemporaries he profited from Venice’s location as a trading port with a good access to products from the east where the ultramarine came from. Not all artists were so lucky to be situated close to the source though. In several letters Albrecht Dürer complained angrily on the high prices of ultramarine.
One of my most favourite painters was celebrating the beauty of ultramarine in an almost unorthodox way: Jan Vermeer. Genuine ultramarine can be found in every Vermeer painting, often in lavish amounts. He used the brilliant blue not only for blue objects or blue background surfaces, but also to form shadows, light reflexions and to give other colours more luminosity. In his painting The Girl with a Wineglass, the shadows of the red satin dress are entirely underpainted in ultramarine. Vermeer had 10 children and piled an increasing amount of debts (when the fortune of his parents-in-law decreased), but still he never ceased using ultramarine in such fashion.
Blue in the 18th and 19th century
In 1709 an artificial blue pigment was created totally by accident in Berlin. A colour producer and merchant, to whom a polluted component had been sold to make a red pigment, was astonished when the result happened to be a deep blue. Prussian blue was the first modern inorganic pigment, which could not be found in nature. It’s great qualities, such as good coverage, colour-strength and light-fastness made it very popular both amongst artists and cloth dyers and it is still used for many purposes even today.
At the end of the 19th century, the German chemist Adolf von Baeyer managed to produce synthetic indigo, which started the second indigo clash. The first conflict took place in the Middle Ages, when an imported indigo from India endangered the woad industry in Europe as it was deemed to be superior. The new indigo won, both times. The company BASF hence produced synthetic indigo in large amounts, which caused the ruin of the indigo industry in India. The artificial pigment was simply cheaper and better.
Military uniforms were colourful at that time. The English soldiers (“red coats”) fought in their legendary red uniforms for several centuries. Blue, which was a colour to convey respect and decency, became predominant for all kinds of uniforms in Europe. The French army wore uniformly blue after the French revolution (blue was the colour of all who favoured the revolution), the Prussian army had already been identified by its dark blue uniforms since the 17th century. This changed only in World War 1, when soldiers had to face modern weapons, which were far reaching and produced less smoke. Henceforth soldiers had to become as invisible as possible.
In the 18th century blue finally rose to become the most fashionable colour of them all. Until that time the nobility only liked dark blue garments, lighter blue shades were still worn only by the working class. Quite suddenly, hues of pastel and sky blue were the latest thing in the upper circles and words had to be invented to describe the new favourite blues. In 1724 the French language had 24 commonly used words for shades of blue (which were all produced by cloth dyers), 16 referred to light blue shades.
The literature of the Enlightenment and the Romanticism in Europe picked up this trend, fashion and literature mutually intensified this development further. Perhaps the best example of this is the blue tailcoat of Goethe’s character Werther from The Sorrows of Young Werther. The novel was so successful that the blue tailcoat of the desperate, amorous hero became fashionable for young men all over Europe. Blue was a special colour for Goethe, it appears in many of his writings. Blue and yellow are also the central components in his theory of colours as he experienced them as the perfect chromatic harmony.
In 1802, Novalis` unfinished novel “Heinrich von Ofterdingen” was published posthumously, two years after his death. In the story, a young poet sees a blue flower in his dream, which transforms into the face of a beautiful girl. He goes away looking for her and finally finds Mathilde, who unfortunately dies soon after. The tale is about the longing for a meaning in life, which according to Novalis can derive only from mystic insights. The colour blue reached a cultic status during the European Romanticism. Blue became a symbol of love, longing and for the pursuit of the infinite. This romantic but melancholic blue survived until today.
Blue Jeans- the world´s most popular piece of clothing
In 1853 a young Jew named Levi Strauss arrived in San Francisco, where the gold rush was at its peak. He tried to earn a living by selling tent fabrics, but it didn´t go well. When someone told him that what they really needed were sturdy trousers, Strauss made trousers from the fabrics he had; with huge success. His enterprise was expanding rapidly. Around 1860 Levi Strauss replaced the tent fabric with a denim, a strong cotton fabric from Europe dyed blue with woad, which was mainly used for the clothes of mine and factory workers. The word jeans derives from Genoese; the original tent fabric Strauss used came from Genua. The fabric was too dense to be dyed evenly and in a deep colour, but this only increased its success. The blue of Strauss’ jeans was lively and special. Over the years, he improved his models. The jeans for lumbermen for exemple were decorated with rivets around the pockets. When in 1890 Levi Strauss’ patent ended, other companies started to manufacture similar products, but nevertheless, Levi Strauss died a very rich man in 1902. His jeans were the first items of clothing to be branded with a label in order to mark their genuineness.
In the 1940s, blue jeans were already very popular as casual trousers in the USA. “Vogue” had published its first advertisement for luxury jeans and in Europe the triumph of the jeans began after the 2nd Word War. In the 50s a pair of jeans was an essential part of the look of the greaser subculture. In the 60s and 70s, the hippies loved blue jeans no less than the punk rock and heavy metal youths in the 80s. Each generation and each fashion period discovered blue jeans anew.
But even though they were so commonly worn, blue jeans became a symbol of the resistance against capitalism. During the 70s, clothes became cheaper than ever before. It was the beginning of our throwaway society and naturally a counter movement developed who’s supporters wore blue jeans, which were still an icon for the real, durable thing.
Today everybody is wearing them everywhere in the world… Why are blue jeans so popular? Yves Saint Laurent has an answer: “I have often said that I wish I had invented blue jeans: the most spectacular, the most practical, the most relaxed and nonchalant. They have expression, modesty, sex appeal, simplicity- all I hope for in my clothes.”
Blue in Modern Art
With the industrial manufacturing of synthetic pigments the colour blue lost its prominent position, but there were a few modern artists, who developed a special bond with blue nevertheless. Just to name a few:
Pablo Picasso´s Blue Period is a series of monochromatic paintings in blues and greens created between 1901 and 1904. Even though they are amongst his most popular paintings today, he had difficulties selling them at the time. They were too melancholic for his contemporaries. Indeed Picasso was depressed when he started this series. He had just lost a good friend and arrived alone and penniless in Montmartre without speaking much French.
In his late period Mark Rothko created his signature colour block paintings. The early paintings of that series are composed of bright, vibrant colours like reds and yellows, but later from the mid 50s on, he preferred darker colours, above all dark shades of blue. Also here the shift towards blue was a sign of unhappiness. Dark blue served him to express a growing dissatisfaction in his life. Even though his increasing fame and wealth, Rothko felt misunderstood as an artist. He was afraid that people bought his pieces only out of fashion and he didn’t want to be seen as an abstractionist, as he explains here; “I’m interested only in expressing basic human emotions — tragedy, ecstasy, doom, and so on — and the fact that lots of people break down and cry when confronted with my pictures shows that I communicate those basic human emotions… The people who weep before my pictures are having the same religious experience I had when I painted them. And if you, as you say, are moved only by their color relationships, then you miss the point!”
The modern artist who is probably most associated with the colour blue is Yves Klein. He created monochrome vibrant blue paintings from one single pigment. Together with the art supplier Edouard Adam he invented a deep blue very similar to ultramarine, which he had patented under the name International Klein Blue. This blue pigment wasn’t unique because of its colour though, but because of the synthetic resin binder, in which the pigment was suspended. The special component made it possible for Klein to maintain as much of its original qualities as possible. But once dissolved in resin, his blue paint was only applicable for 45 minutes and Klein had to work very fast to accomplish his pieces. His fascination for the colour blue began with his love for the perfect sky: “On this day I started to hate the birds, because they passed my cloudless sky and tried to drill wholes in my biggest and most beautiful piece of art.”
The most favourite colour
First opinion surveys regarding the favourite colours of people in Europe were made in the late 19th century. In the last hundred years these kind of surveys multiplied exponentially as they play an important role for marketing researches. The result is the same as it was back then: The Western world is standing firmly behind the colour blue.
The question about a favourite colour is extremely vague. What does it mean if someone calls a colour his/her favourite? I believe that it is normally a collective perception of a colour inside a society, the virtues we connect to it makes us prefer a colour to others.
The colour blue is the most accepted colour in Western countries. We perceive it as pieceful, risk-free, almost neutral. If you choose black as your favourite colour, you might be seen as a sombre character, if you choose red, it might be interpreted as an aggressive streak (just imagine the flag of the United Nations was red and not blue). But if you choose blue, you are normally on the safe side.
Whatever the reasons are why the colour blue is so popular, the historical ascent of blue is extremely fascinating. Humans didn´t pay it much attention in their early history, but from the moment its otherwordly beauty was discovered, humans granted blue a very special positioning. Blue was always connected to our ability to innovate and to create.
References: Eva Heller: Wie Farben auf Gefühl und Verstand wirken; Michel Pastoureau: Blau- Die Geschichte einer Farbe; World Wide Web
Flora Vagi was born in Budapest, Hungary, in 1978. She studied at the Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico in Taxco, Mexico, the Alchimia Contemporary Jewellery School in Florence, Italy, and made her MA in Goldsmithing/Silversmithing in the Royal College of Art in London, UK. Currently she is doing her PhD in sculpture at the University of Pécs, Hungary. Flora has shown her work internationally at galleries, museums and fairs including Flow Gallery, London, UK; Gallery Velvet da Vinci, San Francisco, USA; Museum Bellerive, Zurich, Switzerland; Coda Museum, Apeldoorn, the Netherlands, and the Internationale Handwerksmesse, Munich, Germany. She was awarded the Talente Prize for Design, Munich, Germany, the Bakri Yehia Memorial Award of the Royal College of Art, London, UK, and the Young Talent Prize of the World Craft Council, Belgium. Her work is part of public collections, e.g. the collection of the CODA Museum, Apeldoorn, the Netherlands, and the Grassi Museum, Leipzig, Germany.
1 Flora Vagi: Waves of blue, brooch; Ebony, pigment, acrylic paint, steel; Photo: Flora Vagi
2 Flora Vagi: Bigblue Seanemone, brooch; Book pages, acrylic paint, pigment, cold enamel, silver, steel; Photo: Flora Vagi
3 Flora Vagi: Azur Reverse, necklace; Ebony, silk, cold enamel, 18ct gold; Photo: Flora Vagi
4 Flora Vagi: Things happen in a Garden Series – Big blue-red, brooch; Wood, pigment, acrylic paint, silver, steel, glass; Photo: Flora Vagi, Model: Samira Götz
5 Flora Vagi: Things happen in a Garden Series – Big blue-red, brooch; Wood, pigment, acrylic paint, silver, steel, glass; Photo: Flora Vagi
6 Flora Vagi: Yves’ branch, brooch; Tree branches, pigment, acrylic paint, glass, 18ct gold; Photo: Flora Vagi
7 Flora Vagi: Sea waves, brooch; Wood, pigment, acrylic paint, silver, steel; Photo: Flora Vagi
8 Flora Vagi: Yves Ebony Waves, necklace; Ebony, acrylic paint, pigment, silk; Photo: Flora Vagi
9 Flora Vagi: Things Happen in a Garden Series – Deep blue flowers, brooch; Wood, pigment, acrylic paint, silver, steel; Photo: Flora Vagi
Text edit: Hayley Grafflin