For some, blue represents the sea and sky. For others, it’s a symbol of sadness, a ‘feeling blue’. It was once the most highly coveted and costly pigment in the world, yet centuries later used for dyeing the uniforms of labourers. Read on to explore our journey of many contrasts with blue.
Blue was late to arrive on the colour wheel. The Ancient Greeks and Romans didn’t have a word for the colour, and both civilisations omitted it from the rainbow altogether. Scientific reasoning around this is divided: some theories argue that early humans were colourblind to blue; others speculate that it simply wasn’t a commonly available pigment that could be taken from the earth’s natural minerals to produce art. However, one thing is agreed upon: decorative blue and its recognition as colour began with the rare semi-precious stone, lapis lazuli.
Lapis was first sourced in Afghanistan, where it was used as a pigment as early as circa 650AD in Buddhist temples in Bamiyan. The Egyptians became besotted with the vibrant colour. Due to its rare and expensive nature, they would later imitate the stone by combining sand and copper minerals in a hot furnace to create the first synthetic blue pigment – a more affordable blue that could be used in decorative arts. Known today as Egyptian blue, it was originally named hsbd-iryt – ‘artificial lapis lazuli’.
Royalty and Religion
The Egyptians reserved the pure precious lapis stone exclusively for royalty. Scarab lapis pendants were discovered in the tomb of Tutankhamun, and Cleopatra’s iconic blue eye makeup was made from grinding the stone into powder. Lapis was later renamed ultramarine or ‘beyond the sea’, when it was imported into Europe during the 14th and 15th centuries, where it would become the most sought-after colour in Europe. At one stage, it cost more than gold. Centuries later, in the 1880s royal blue was established in England as part of a competition to make a dress for Queen Charlotte, and the colour can be seen today on the Union Jack flag.
In an equally devotional sense, blue came to represent the figure of the Virgin Mary when the Catholic church colour-coded the garments of various saints in the year 431 AD, and Mary was appointed a blue robe. This may have been inspired by the colour often worn by Byzantine empresses at the time, but it also represented all things heavenly and divine. Mary was also a figure of authority and motherhood, and in this, she illustrated truth and peace, so blue became a symbol of these virtues. The depiction of Mary during the Renaissance came at a cost, as artists were financially conflicted when using the expensive deep blue ultramarine that was a signature of many paintings of the era. It was only used in significant works of art, such as Sassoferrato’s Praying Madonna (circa 1660), and it remained a privilege until a synthetic version was invented in the 19th century.
Sea and sky
Across the ages, artists have sought to illustrate the human fascination with the elements – from crashing ocean waves to vast skyscapes. By the 18th century, popular colour palettes included sky-coloured cerulean and deep Prussian blue. The latter was utilised by Japanese painters and woodblock print artists who had previously lacked access to a long-lasting blue pigment until they started importing the pigment from Europe. Katsushika Hokusai used Prussian blue to create his most illustrious piece, The Great Wave off Kanagawa (1829–33), and other prints in his Mount Fuji series. In the 20th century, David Hockney’s works spanning the 1960s and 70s depict the enticing blue pools of his Hollywood Hills, California home, playing with splashes, ripples and light. He said: ‘Whenever I left England, colors got stronger in the pictures. California always affected me with color. Because of the light you see more…’
Artists have similarly attempted to capture a moment in the shifting blue shades of the sky. Cobalt and ultramarine oils were used to depict an ethereal swirling night sky punctuated by bright stars in Van Gogh’s iconic 1889 masterpiece, Starry Night. And Georgia O’Keeffe’s abstract watercolour interpretations of vast Southern American landscapes include that of burgeoning indigo and yellow sunrise in her 1917 Light Coming on the Plains series; the artist often painted through the night to get the sky just right.
Though no one can agree on the origins of the phrase ‘feeling blue’, it had featured in dictionaries since the 18th century when it appeared in A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, under the description: ‘To look blue; to be confounded, terrified, or disappointed.’ During the Impressionist and Symbolist eras, artists turned to blue to represent melancholy, depression and poverty. Edvard Munch portrays his despondency regarding failures in his love life in the haunting blue shades of Kiss by the Window (1892), and Paul Cézanne’s grieving figure in the aptly titled Sorrow is cloaked in blue (circa 1867). Most famous of all is Picasso’s Blue Period (1901–4), an era which marked his deep depressive period following the death of close friend Carles Casagemas. ‘It was thinking about Casagemas that got me started painting in blue.’ Works such as The Old Guitarist (1903) and Melancholy Woman (1902–3) are largely monochromatic blue and blue-green paintings depicting poverty- and pain-stricken figures. They pushed the artist further into poverty himself, as buyers were less interested in these dark, emotive subjects, and Picasso retreated further from those around him during these years.
The rise of denim
Utilising plant-based indigo to dye fabric dates back thousands of years in various South American and Asian nations and was a key material traded on the Silk Road. By the 19th century, a synthetic version of indigo was created, and a century later, it was used to dye denim. Durable, cheap, easy to wash and hide dirt, denim overalls and trousers became a popular uniform for workers and those heavy labour positions around the world, such as miners. It entered the realm of fashion when, in 1873, tailor Jacob W. Davis took his invention of the denim jean to businessman Levi Strauss, and they both patented the item under the brand Levi Strauss & Co. In the 1950s and 60s, jeans were popularised by Hollywood stars such as James Dean, and – as the clothing became more socially acceptable – it became the item that it is today: one of the most worn garments for casual, everyday wear. A long and winding road from its regal beginnings and deftly illustrates the versatility and adaptability that is blue.