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History of Blue | Prerna Anilkumar

Prerna Anilkumar

Blue is the colour of distance.

Of melancholy.

Of emotion.

Of desire.

Of solitude.

Of eroticism.

Of the unattainable.

Of the things lost.

It comes to us with time when we start traversing the terrain of longing and discovering the texture of yearning.

Historians have concluded that the word for blue never existed in the Greek times.  This shade was considered indistinguishable from the neutrality of white. When English as a language started its journey, blue still, never came to the forefront. The first colours to be named were white and black . Then came red, yellow and green. Blue mushroomed up the last in our lexicon. This could have been due to the fact that blue in nature was not that easily found. Bluebirds, Blue flowers, Blue eyes. All of them were very rare. Even our cave painting which were more than 20,000 years old never contained tints of azure because of the shade’s rarity in nature. The word ‘blue’ seems to have only emerged in the year 1555 and has roots in a word for ‘melancholy’.

According to one theory, sky was considered to be white till we actually came up with a word for blue. The conception of this shade as a colour in our minds took its own sweet time.  This thesis was further supported by a study on an old Namibian tribe which didn’t have distinct words for blue and green. Thus, language truly shaped our perception of the world.

It literally coloured our world.

It was only 6,000 years ago that we started making blue from pigments of lapis, a stone from Afghanistan, which soon became highly valued for being a unique carrier of this colour. Calcium and limestone later started being combined with this to concentrate the blue pigments more. All of this happened in the Egyptian civilisation where the blue pigment got extensively experimented on to decorate the eyes of Cleopatra and Pharaohs. So naturally it was the Egyptians who first came up with a word for blue.

Blue dyes then started flowing all around the world touching the civilisations and homelands of the Persians and the Romans. However, the colour only flowed in the Royal circles and so was still long away from gaining its prominence in the masses.

Other civilisations soon followed suit. China starting to use it with copper to create its own tints of blue. The Mesoamericans produced their own distinct shade of azure which was reflected well in their art, craft and sometimes even in their sacrificial rituals involving humans. The Mayans used indigo and palygorskite to concoct their solution of blue. Throughout the world though, it remained an expensive colour to create and so came to be wrapped around an aura of aspiration and privilege.

A huge turning point came with the move of the Catholic Church in 431 AD where it decided to colour code each saint at the Council of Ephesus. And Mary was gifted this royal colour . Images and visuals of Mary in that grand robe of blue quickly gained popularity and this shade gradually started settling down in depths of our consciousness. This same shade later came to be known as Navy Blue. Mary symbolised innocence. Truth. Virtue. Peace.  All of these associations with the colour led to it being chosen by the military and police to exude a similar sense of goodness and trustworthiness. With this, blue began its ascension wrapped with notions of power and authority.

The divinity and richness stayed with the colour till the dawn of the industrial age. Except in the instance of a specific blue dye made from the Woad plant through a smelly convoluted process.  The nature of this process became one of the reasons for this dye to be used in clothing for the masses and the poor. After the dawn of the industry, the notion of blue as the colour-of-boys emerged post World War Two baby boom. It was a manufacturer’s tactic to increase sales.

Alternatively in the arts, the affairs of the blue truly started with the 15th century where we had the colour being used by Hans Memling in his Triptych of the Resurrection (1490).  The affair continued with Andrea Solario in his 1503 painting called “The Crucifixion”. We then had the vibrant-ness of the blue displayed in Noccolo De abate’s painting of 1571 depicting Blue towns and blue skies. Joachim Patenier’s painting of Saint Jerome in this landscape reminded us of an exile from Blue.

Gradually gaining its ground as the colour of the faraway, blue transitioned with Leonardo Da Vinci’s portrait of Ginevra de’Benci (1474). He famously remarked, “to make one appear more distant than another, you should represent the air as rather dense. Therefore make the first building…of its own colour, next most distant make less outlines and more blue; that which you wish to show at yet another distance, make bluer yet again; and that which is five times more distant make five times more blue.” Therefore, the fifteenth century marked the beginning of the mesmerising foothold of blue. It was as if the painters were under its seductive spell.

With the 19th century dawned the era of Cyanotypes: blue photographs. Amateur photographers immersed themselves completely while the professionals used these to create preliminary prints which would naturally fade, like our memories, with time. A process developed by John Herschel (interestingly the same man who coined the words ‘photograph’), it dabbled into Prussian Blue and used only two chemicals: ferric ammonium citrate and potassium ferricyanide. Anna Atkins, considered one of the first female photographers later used this process for her botanical prints and beautifully blended science and art in her book ‘British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions.’

Edward Steichen also talked about indulging in cyanotypes as an act of secrecy in a letter to his mentor-friend Alfred Steiglitz. This reflects how the use of the colour blue in photography was looked down upon and even called an ‘ugly stepchild’ of the main medium.

Irrespective, Blue continued to simmer in our world reminding us of four words:





In the late 19th century, Henry Bosse weaved together an album of oval photographs profusely bathed in this blue.

As we transitioned into the 20th century, the legacy of the blue was carried over into postcards. Blue was everywhere. Blue monuments. Blue palaces. Blue mountains. Blue rivers.

The same age also witnessed Picasso’s famous Blue Period starting in the year 1901. This brought back the intensity of blue rooted in its sadness. His subjects consisted of beggars, street urchins, blind people, old people, weak people.

The late 50s also saw the rise of the blue denim jeans which has made the colour as ubiquitous as it possibly could. Levi Straus and Jacob Davis became the new artists of this shade with James Dean, its new ambassador.

In the meantime, the world was getting ready to witness a huge transition in the way this colour is known. This came through Yves Klein, who at the age of twenty “claimed the sky as his own piece of art”. He was born in 1928 and brought up by his Aunt Rosie who played a huge role in carving him into an equal part mystic and avant-gardist. Claude Pascal, Armand Fernandez and him formed a pact one day where each divided a realm of the world amongst themselves. Claude chose the plants, Armand chose animals and Klein naturally chose the sky.

Much later, Klein painted symphonies of blue with a singular note and patented this shade of the ultramarine which all of us now know as International Klein Blue (IKB).  This is a permanent shade in the set of poster colours which instantly evoke memories of our schools and our childhood.

This Shade was Klein’s way of returning home. To an immediacy as well as distance. He called this L’ époque bleu (the age of blue).  Others called it Monochrome abstraction, carrying on the proud traditions of Avant Gardists like Kazemir Malevich and Alexander Rodchenko who also exuded a similar madness and love for a singular chrome.  In Klein’s second show titled Le Vide (the void) the guestbook has Albert Camus remarking, “ with the void, full powers”.

Meandering in cartography as a beautiful act of protest, Klein, in 1957 painted a map of the world completely splashed in blue. With no divisions and boundaries. No land. No water. Just blue. Everything and nothing.  Almost as a terra incognita (the unknown). The Unconquerable. Untouchable by the forces of imperialism. Just blue. Later in 1961, he painted relief maps, one of which depicted Algeria and France as a continuous piece of mass while these two countries were at war at that time. Thus, Colour became a political gesture against colonialism and capitalism.

The world is blue at its edges and in its depths. This blue is the light that got lost. Light at the blue end of the spectrum does not travel the whole distance from the sun to us. It disperses among the molecules of the air, it scatters in water. Water is colourless, shallow water appears to be the colour of whatever lies underneath it, but deep water is full of this scattered light, the purer the water the deeper the blue. The sky is blue for the same reason but the blue at the horizon, the blue of land that seems to be dissolving into the sky, is a deeper, dreamier, melancholy blue, the blue at the farthest reaches of the places where you see for miles, the blue of distance. This light that does not touch us, does not travel the whole distance, the light that gets lost, gives us the beauty of the world, so much of which is in the colour blue. – Rebecca Solnit, A field Guide to Getting Lost.
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