An Elegy for Blue
Updated: May 10, 2021
Blue has a long and topsy-turvy history; first developed some 4,500 years ago in Egypt, it is believed to be the earliest artificial pigment in human history (assuming that we exclude charcoal). Its use spread throughout Egypt, Mesopotamia, Greece, and the far reaches of the Roman Empire .
Egyptian faience hippopotamus, 2033–1710 BC © The British Museum, London
In medieval Europe, ultramarine – the purest and richest but most expensive blue made from lapis lazuli mined in remote Badakshan in Afghanistan – was reserved for the most revered of subjects, such as the vestments of the Virgin Mary. Later, in the late Renaissance-era, Titian broke the mould, using ultramarine for subjects other than the religious in extravagant paintings like Bacchus and Ariadne, with its dazzling blue sky covering almost half the canvas .
Titian, Bacchus and Ariadne, 1520-3 © The National Gallery, London
Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Vincent van Gogh and other late 19th century painters used ultramarine and cobalt blue not just to depict nature, but to create moods and emotions. Van Gogh wrote to his brother Theo, “Cobalt [blue] is a divine color and there is nothing so beautiful for putting atmosphere around things”.
Vincent van Gogh, Wheatfield Under Thunderclouds, 1890 © Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam
At the beginning of the 20th century, many artists recognized the emotional power of blue, and made it the central element of paintings. During his Blue Period (1901-1904) Pablo Picasso used blue as the color of melancholy. In Russia, the symbolist painter Pavel Kuznetsov and the Blue Rose art group (1906-1908) used blue to create a fantastic and exotic atmosphere. In Germany, Wassily Kandinsky and other Russian émigrés formed the art group called Der Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider), and used blue to symbolize spirituality and eternity .
Pablo Picasso, La Celestine, 1904 © Musée Picasso, Paris
The Blue Condominium in Athens is a benchmark work of Greek modernism, and a hymn to the color blue. The architect, Kyriakos Panagiotakos, introduced many innovations, including built-in furnishings, wooden rolling shutters, a lounge for the inhabitants and a -never realized- swimming pool on the top floor. However the most impressive innovation on this building was its color scheme devised by painter Spyros Papaloukas: white for the window frames, warm sienna for the balustrades and deep blue for the walls . All exterior walls were covered in polished concrete screed. The concrete was dyed blue and decorative aggregates, such as ground stone and metal, were added to create a unique shimmering effect that resemble inlays in lapis lazuli. The passage of time has left its heavy mark upon the building; eventually the color scheme was lost and replaced with lighter colors.
Kyriakos Panagiotakos, Blue Condominium, 1932-33 © The Benaki Museum / ANA, Athens
Henri Matisse is widely regarded as the greatest colorist of the twentieth century. His Blue Nudes – paper cutouts painted with blue gouache glued on canvas – are a perfect example of what he called ‘cutting directly into color’ . Pablo Picasso famously once said “When Matisse dies, Chagall will be the only painter left who understands what color really is” , and indeed Chagall’s paintings are an enduring evidence of the supremacy of color in his work. His artworks depict floating figures of dreamers, rabbis, brides, and lovers surrounded by a luminous azure.
Henri Matisse, Blue Nude I, 1952 © Succession H. Matisse / DACS 2013
Marc Chagall, La tête blonde de Léto dans le bleu Chagall © Angelos & Leto Katakouzenos Foundation, Athens
As blue triumphed in the modern era, new shades were created; it also became possible to own your own color of blue. French artist Yves Klein created a specific blue called International Klein blue, which he also patented. It was a deep ultramarine that he thought had a quality close to pure space and it became his signature . Not only did he paint almost 200 monochrome canvases in it but he famously had female models paint their bodies in it, before printing themselves on his canvases .
Yves Klein, Untitled Anthropometry (ANT 100), 1960 © Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris.
In a recent BBC documentary entitled, “A History of Art in Three Colours” the British art historian, Dr James Fox explored how, in the hands of artists, blue has been used to transport us to strange and exotic realms till an all powerful image showed us that blue was not the color of other worlds, it was the color of our own .
William Anders, Earthrise, 1968 © NASA
Words by Nicolas Nicolaides
 Philip McCouat (2014), “Egyptian blue: the colour of technology”, Journal of Art in Society, Retrieved April 16, 2015, from http://www.artinsociety.com/egyptian-blue-the-colour-of-technology.html
 Louise Cohen (2014), “Eight blue moments in art history”, TATE Blog, Retrieved April 16, 2015, from http://www.tate.org.uk/context-comment/blogs/eight-blue-moments-art-history
 Douma, M. (2008), “Cobalt blue”, Pigments through the Ages. Retrieved April 16, 2015, from http://www.webexhibits.org/pigments/indiv/overview/coblue.html
 Wikipedia contributors, “Blue”, Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, Retrieved April 16, 2015, from http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Blue&oldid=655628229
 Sotiris N. Papadopoulos, ed. (2000), “K. Antonopoulos apartment building (Blue Building)”, Paris Londres Athènes – Culture 2000, Retrieved April 16, 2015, from http://www.culture2000.tee.gr/ATHENS/ENGLISH/buildings/build_texts/b132_t.html
 Cohen, op cit.
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 Cohen, op cit.
 Video film accessed at: http://bcove.me/ibm3zqtx
 Video film accessed at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b01l9mf8
Michel Pastoureau, (2002), Blue: The History of a Color, Princeton University Press