Ultramarine was and remains an important and beautiful pigment, but wasn’t the mainstay of painters before Prussian Blue became available in 1710. If you could have looked at the palettes of most artists prior to the eighteenth century, you would most probably have seen Azurite Blue. Once more modern pigments started to flood the market, its use declined, and by 1800, it was gone.
Like Ultramarine, Azurite is a mineral, but being found more widely and in more prosaic locations, it lacked the mystique of the blue from across the sea. It is formed from basic copper carbonate, the same chemical as malachite (with which it is normally found), but formed into a different crystal structure.
It was known to the ancients, but used little in European painting until the Middle Ages, as Egyptian Blue was far more popular in classical times.
As European painting emerged from the Middle Ages into the Renaissance, the use of Azurite Blue flourished. You could be mistaken for thinking that the blue robes in Giotto’s egg tempera painting of Pentecost from about 1310-18 use Ultramarine, but in fact they use Azurite Blue instead.
With some notable exceptions, when bound by drying oil or egg, Azurite Blue has proved to be a stable and reliable pigment. Its only real disadvantage is that grinding it too finely results in lightening of its colour.
The sky in the van Eycks’ magnificent centre panel of the Ghent Altarpiece, the Adoration of the Lamb, from about 1425-1432 relies on Azurite Blue, where it can now be seen to have turned slightly green in parts.
It has also been found in Piero della Francesca’s famous Baptism of Christ, which was painted in egg tempera after 1437. I suspect that it was used throughout its lucent sky.
Azurite Blue became established as the basis for the blue robes used to signify the most holy figures, in particular the Virgin Mary as depicted by Dirk Bouts and his workshop in The Virgin and Child with Saint Peter and Saint Paul from the 1460s. Depending on the artist and the painting, it was often used for the underpainting, over which Ultramarine glazes were applied.
It was also used extensively in fresco, where it has proved more vulnerable to discoloration.
When watercolour paints became more widely used, Azurite was often the sole blue pigment used. This is the case in the first large opaque watercolours, Raphael’s cartoons painted in around 1515-16, including The Miraculous Draft of Fishes, also shown in detail below.
Another notable and impressive use of Azurite as the sole blue pigment is Albrecht Altdorfer’s Christ Taking Leave of His Mother from about 1520, here in oil paint. All the blues seen here in both clothing and sky rely on Azurite for their colours.
Jacopo Tintoretto was another Old Master who relied on Azurite Blue, and it forms his mainstay blue in The Origin of the Milky Way from about 1575.
In Diego Velázquez’ Kitchen Scene with Christ in the House of Martha and Mary from about 1618, Azurite Blue is the basis for Christ’s distinctive blue robes shown in the vignette scene at the upper right.
Francisco de Zurbarán’s full-length portrait of Saint Margaret of Antioch, from 1630-34, is an interesting example of one form of discolouration which can affect Azurite Blue. The saint’s blue cloak has darkened in colour over time, becoming almost black in parts, particularly where it hangs down behind her. The reason for this remains obscure.
In Rubens’ late Autumn Landscape with a View of Het Steen in the Early Morning (c 1636), it is Azurite Blue which provides the colour for his magnificent sky.
With its ample supply and low cost, it may seem peculiar that Azurite Blue should have been abandoned so completely when Prussian Blue arrived. What I find even stranger is that Azurite pigment was also manufactured from quite ancient times, being known as Blue Verditer or Blue Bice. Few paintings seem to gave undergone careful examination to establish whether they used the synthetic pigment, though, and it is almost entirely known from its use in domestic paints, particularly for decorative purposes.
You can still get Azurite Blue, but it is now a specialist pigment, and absent from major paint ranges. Given its great importance up to 1710, that seems rather a shame.
Rutherford J Gettens and Elisabeth West FitzHugh (1993) Artists’ Pigments, vol 2, ed Ashok Roy, Archetype. ISBN 978 1 904982 75 3.