Pigment: Azurite Blue, the mainstay

Albrecht Altdorfer (1480–1538), Christ taking leave of his Mother (c 1520), oil on lime, 141 x 111 cm, The National Gallery, London. Wikimedia Commons.

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.

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Giotto (c 1267/76-1337) and Workshop, Pentecost (c 1310-18), egg tempera on poplar, 45.5 x 44 cm, The National Gallery (Bequeathed by Geraldine Emily Coningham in memory of her husband, Major Henry Coningham, and of Mrs Coningham of Brighton, 1942), London. Courtesy of and © The National Gallery, London.

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.

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Hubert van Eyck (c 1366–1426) and Jan van Eyck (c 1390–1441), Adoration of the Lamb, panel from the Ghent Altarpiece (c 1425-1432), oil on panel, 137.7 x 242.3 cm (panel), Saint Bavo Cathedral Sint-Baafskathedraal, Ghent, Belgium. Wikimedia Commons.

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.

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Piero della Francesca (c 1415/20-1492), The Baptism of Christ (after 1437), egg on poplar, 167 x 116 cm, The National Gallery (Bought, 1861), London. Courtesy of and © The National Gallery, London.

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.

Dirk Bouts (c 1400-75), workshop of, The Virgin and Child with Saint Peter and Saint Paul (c 1460s), oil on oak, 68.8 x 51.6 cm, The National Gallery, London. Courtesy of the National Gallery.
Dirk Bouts (c 1400-75), workshop of, The Virgin and Child with Saint Peter and Saint Paul (c 1460s), oil on oak, 68.8 x 51.6 cm, The National Gallery, London. Courtesy of the National Gallery.

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.

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Raphael (Rafael Sanzio de Urbino) (1483–1520), The Miraculous Draft of Fishes (c 1515-16), bodycolour over charcoal on paper, mounted on canvas, 319 x 399 cm, The Royal Collection of the United Kingdom, UK. Wikimedia Commons.

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.

raphaelmiraculousdraftfishesd1
Raphael (Rafael Sanzio de Urbino) (1483–1520), The Miraculous Draft of Fishes (detail) (c 1515-16), bodycolour over charcoal on paper, mounted on canvas, 319 x 399 cm, The Royal Collection of the United Kingdom, UK. Wikimedia Commons.
Albrecht Altdorfer (1480–1538), Christ taking leave of his Mother (c 1520), oil on lime, 141 x 111 cm, The National Gallery, London. Wikimedia Commons.
Albrecht Altdorfer (1480–1538), Christ taking leave of his Mother (c 1520), oil on lime, 141 x 111 cm, The National Gallery, London. Wikimedia Commons.

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.

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Jacopo Tintoretto (c 1518–1594), The Origin of the Milky Way (c 1575), oil on canvas, 149.4 × 168 cm, The National Gallery (Bought, 1890), London. Image courtesy of and © The National Gallery, London.

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.

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Diego Velázquez (1599-1660), Kitchen Scene with Christ in the House of Martha and Mary (c 1618), oil on canvas, 60 x 103.5 cm, The National Gallery (Bequeathed by Sir William H. Gregory, 1892), London. Courtesy of and © The National Gallery, London.

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.

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Francisco de Zurbarán (1598-1664), Saint Margaret of Antioch (1630-34), oil on canvas, 163 x 105 cm, The National Gallery (Bought, 1903), London. Courtesy of and © The National Gallery, London.

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.

rubenshetsteenearlymorning
Peter Paul Rubens (1577–1640), An Autumn Landscape with a View of Het Steen in the Early Morning (c 1636), oil on oak, 131.2 x 229.2 cm, The National Gallery (Sir George Beaumont Gift, 1823/8), London. Courtesy of and © The National Gallery, London.

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.

Reference

Rutherford J Gettens and Elisabeth West FitzHugh (1993) Artists’ Pigments, vol 2, ed Ashok Roy, Archetype. ISBN 978 1 904982 75 3.