Reduced to its basics, painting is the process of applying pigment in a binder to the ground on a support. Pigments have long been required, rather than dyes, as the particles containing colourant ensure durability, both mechanically and with protection from fading. The search for pigments has had great influence over painting, and for long relied on what could be found in nature.
Ultramarine blue is a good example of a natural pigment which has had its effects on art. Originally made by crushing and grinding the semi-precious stone lapis lazuli, its cost in the past has exceeded that of gold. Seen in paintings, it produces a rich slightly reddish blue which stands the test of time, as distinctive and effective today as when it was first used.
The sole source of lapis lazuli in Europe and the West were quarries in Badakshan, described by Marco Polo and now in Afghanistan. It appears that wall paintings made around 507-554 CE adjacent to the great Buddahs of Bamiyan were the first to have used the mineral as a pigment. It was then used in early Persian miniatures, and in early Chinese and Indian paintings too.
The powdered pigment had made its way, first along the Silk Road, then by sea, to traders in Venice by about 1300. By the Renaissance, it was established as one of the most important and precious of all the pigments used in European art. Because of its beauty and high cost, ultramarine blue was used for the robes of Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary. As a pigment, it proved practical in egg tempera, oils, watercolour, and fresco.
Visit any of the larger galleries with substantial collections of paintings made before 1700, and you will see works with drapery which I can only describe as arresting in the brilliance of their ultramarine blue. One stunning example in the National Gallery in London is Sassoferrato’s The Virgin in Prayer from 1640-50. The Virgin’s cloak looks as if it was painted only yesterday, and that colour makes you stop in your tracks and draws you into the painting, like no other pigment can.
The search for good blue pigments wasn’t particularly successful. Many blues used in crafts are dyes derived from plants, like indigo, which have proved fugitive. The first true synthetic pigment was in fact so ancient that it had been forgotten completely long before the Middle Ages: Egyptian blue was made before about 3000 BCE by heating together powdered limestone, malachite, and quartz sand, to form calcium copper silicate.
It wasn’t until the early years of the eighteenth century that a hydrated iron hexacyanoferrate complex known quickly as Prussian blue was synthesized. No one knows who first made this pigment, nor exactly when it was first synthesized. It seems to have appeared initially around 1704, and its origins have been attributed variously to Diesbach in Berlin, or Mak in Leipzig. For once its name is appropriate, as it was very much a product of the Prussian Empire. Its potential as a colourant was recognised by 1710 when it went on sale in Berlin, and by about 1724 it was being manufactured in several countries across Europe.
Among the first surviving oil paintings to use Prussian blue is this by Adriaen van der Werff and Henrik van Limborch, of Jacob Blessing the Sons of Joseph. It was van der Werff who is thought to have applied the Prussian blue paint to the curtain at the upper left, before he died in 1722. After his death, his pupil Henrik van Limborch finished the work by 1728.
Canaletto is one of the first Masters to have used Prussian blue extensively. Grand Canal from Palazzo Balbi toward the Rialto from 1720-23 has been attributed to him as one of his earliest surviving works, and its blues have been found to contain Prussian blue.
Canaletto was quick to use the pigment in almost all his paintings, including his famous Stonemason’s Yard in about 1725.
As experience was gained in using Prussian blue, it became the subject of controversy. Some artists were confident that its colour was stable and didn’t change or fade, but others experienced problems as bad as or even worse than those of indigo, which it had generally replaced. It has gradually become understood that adverse results of lightfastness testing (and experience in paintings) have depended on the mixture of Prussian blue with other colours, particularly with white paint, and the presence of impurities in the pigment itself.
By the middle of the eighteenth century, Prussian blue was widely used in a range of binding media, with the exception of fresco and other alkaline media with which it proved incompatible.
William Hogarth’s paintings in his Marriage A-la-Mode series have been found to contain Prussian blue. In The Tête à Tête (c 1743), smalt (another blue pigment) has been found in the ornate carpet, and I suspect that the ornamental pillars behind the woman rely on Prussian blue, at least in part.
Jean-Baptiste Perronneau’s A Girl with a Kitten from about 1743 is a fine example of the use of Prussian blue in pastels, for both the girl’s blue dress and the background.
Prussian blue also became popular in water-based media. William Blake’s Lucia Carrying Dante in his Sleep, from his series depicting Dante’s Divine Comedy painted in watercolour between 1824-27, is a good example. In this and several other of his paintings, Blake used the pigment on its own, and mixed with gamboge to form what was known as Prussian green.
Prussian blue forms the blue passages in Whistler’s The Princess from the Land of Porcelain (1863-65), from his Peacock Room, shown above and in the detail below.
The use of different blue pigments varied markedly among the French Impressionists and their successors. Paul Cézanne and Georges Seurat appear to have used Prussian blue seldom, if at all, but it is well known in the work of Edgar Degas, Claude Monet, and Vincent van Gogh.
Although Claude Monet’s Bathers at la Grenouillère (1869) contains cobalt blue in its brighter mid-blues of the water surface and details in the boats, darker blues towards the left, and in the clothing of some of the figures and their reflections, are almost certainly Prussian blue.
Vincent van Gogh’s portrait of La Mousmé from 1888 illustrates some of the difficulties of identifying pigment use. Infra-red images demonstrate the use of at least two different blues, one of which is Prussian blue.
The two (or more) blue pigments are not distributed at all evenly: on the girl’s jacket, the three blue stripes to the left of the row of buttons contain the most Prussian blue, while the three under her right armpit, which look darker, contain little or none. Van Gogh also mixed yellow with Prussian blue to create the green of the flowers she holds in her hand.
Prussian blue remained a popular pigment in oil and watercolour paints well into the twentieth century, and is still offered in commercial ranges. For many artists, though, it has been replaced by much more recent synthetic blue pigments, such as Phthalocyanine (‘Phthalo’) blue, introduced around 1970, and it’s seldom seen in Prussian green.
Cobalt blue is a more recent synthetic pigment which has its origins in a natural pigment, smalt, made from powdered blue-coloured glass, in which the active pigment is cobalt oxide. Thénard discovered cobalt aluminate in 1803-04, and recognised its potential as a pigment. As this preceded the introduction of artificial ultramarine, cobalt blue was quickly introduced into artists’ paints, becoming available in oil paints and watercolours from around 1806-08.
Turner’s famous painting of the Fighting Temeraire from 1839 is probably the first major painting in which cobalt blue was used extensively, throughout both the sky and water. Synthetic pigments have since come to dominate our palettes, and the look of our paintings.
Barbara H Berrie (1997) Artists’ Pigments, vol 3, ed Elisabeth West Fitzhugh, Archetype. ISBN 978 1 904982 76 0.