Imagine….a world without blue pigments. Not just blue paints but also dyes, the colourants for textiles and leather, inks and plastics. Leaving the sky above our heads as the only large blue surface in sight, in summer accompanied by the short-lived flowers of fields and mountains.
For thousands of years this was the actual situation.
Strong, warm and bright blue pigments were rare, with lapis lazuli as the ultimate, most revered and exclusive exception.
A painting like Van Gogh’s Dr Gachet from 1890, with its abundant use of blue and red, would have been a phenomenon. Displaying colours and pigments normally reserved for the religious and worldly elite.
The 19th century was an exceptional age having an unprecedented effect on the use and possibilities of colour and paint with France, and in particular Paris, as the driving forces.
Napoleon’s hunger for territory and power resulted in almost endless processions from every corner of the new Empire to it’s capital, Paris, transporting artworks to what later would become the Musée du Louvre.
|Napoleon is considering an Egyptian mummy for his collections, ca. 1800.|
This art-flood had it’s consequences. Many art-works were damaged during the often long transports and needed restoration before being displayed. To this purpose the French government installed in 1794 a Conservatoire du Muséum des Arts. The demand for historic and rare blue pigments, like lapis lazuli and azurite, gave birth to the development of new pigments that changed the painters palette and finally brought an end to the scarcity of bright blue paints.
Cobalt-blue was developed by Thénard around 1802, followed by ultramarine, the long sought for replacement of lapis lazuli, in 1828 by Guimet.
Cobalt-blue was and still is relatively expensive (cheap cobalt is not the real thing!), but ultramarine turned out to be a rather economic pigment. The cheapest varieties were used as whiteners for laundry, of which Reckitt’s Blue is one of the best known. The latter is an ideal substitute for painters lacking resources to buy proper pigments, like the young Van Gogh, who even used coffee grounds to make his brown paints.
|Van Gogh ‘The poor and the money’, 1882, mixed media on paper|
Van Gogh considered cobalt-blue to be une couleur divine, a divine colour, ideal for suggesting space in the restricted two-dimensions of a canvas. The portrait of Dr. Gachet is a beautiful example of his love for an abundant use of cobalt, indirectly made possible thanks to the expeditions of Napoleon.
|Le Docteur Paul Gachet, 1890, 68 x 57 cm, Musée d’Orsay, Paris|