Spring 2003

Colors / Ultramarine

The blue from beyond the sea

Matthew Buckingham

“Colors” is a column in which a writer responds to a specific color assigned by the editors of Cabinet.

Photo Matthew Buckingham.

Mining of lapis lazuli, a dark blue gemstone, begins in the Kokcha Valley in the Badakshan region of what is now northeast Afghanistan. Initially lapis is traded to India and Egypt, then to Mesopotamia, Persia, Greece, and Rome. The gems are used in jewelry and sculpture. The Egyptians, who call it the “Sky Stone,” consider lapis sacred and their imitation lapis is the first synthetic color known to be produced in the world. With the market value rising, security is increased at the mines, where miners are routinely chained to the walls of the mineshafts while they work.

In Egypt, paint pigment is made from lapis gems by grinding them to a powder. The resulting paint is used to decorate tombs beginning in the Fourth Dynasty.

Lapis is traded along the “Silk Road” and increasingly enters Europe through Venice. There the paint pigment derived from it is called “ultramarine,” meaning from “over” or “beyond the sea.” Throughout the rest of Europe, the color is often referred to as “Venetian Blue.”

In Greco-Roman and Indo-European cultures, social codes and systems of representation have long been organized around the colors white, black, and red. The relative infrequency of the color blue in Greco-Roman art and the imprecise terminology for blue in their languages will later lead some nineteenth-century art historians to theorize that the “ancients” were blind to the color blue.

Medieval artists begin using blue more symbolically and the tripartite color system is replaced by new combinations. In Christian Europe, the most significant change is the use of ultramarine blue to depict the robes of the Virgin Mary.

Many monarchs of Europe, wishing to associate themselves with the values and power of the church, adopt the deep-blue color of the Virgin’s garments for their own robes. Only in Italy, particularly in Florence and Rome, where the royalty continue to wear red, is the turn to blue resisted.

Ultramarine, which contains more impurities than blue particles, is still the most difficult artist’s pigment to grind by hand. Some improvements in its production make manufacturing more efficient—meaning more reliable supplies for artists who are using the color to portray queens, kings, and religious figures. But this also increases demand for lapis lazuli gems. As its price surpasses that of gold, ultramarine blue literally becomes the material wealth it had heretofore signified. Patrons commonly specify in writing the exact amount of ultramarine blue they will purchase for the artist to use in commissioned paintings.

Following the plague years in Europe, sumptuary laws dictating how clothes are to be manufactured and worn are instituted in order to limit expenditure on dress, encourage modesty, and segregate society along lines of gender, class, and religion. These laws mark a shift to the widespread use of black in art and dress and a near banishment of color. Blue is exempted somewhat, retaining its earlier associations with the dignity of monarchs and the morality of the church.

Isaac Newton experiments with prisms to separate white light into colored rays, quantifying and categorizing the spectrum of visible light. Many European monarchs and artists return to wearing and using color as some sumptuary laws are repealed. Soon the number of pages appearing in painter’s manuals on the use of blue exceeds that of all other colors.

The “cult of Werther” springs up in response to the publication of Goethe’s first novel The Sorrows of Young Werther. Influenced by the blue dress coat Werther is described wearing in the book, the cult declares blue to be the color of Romanticism and also adopts the wearing of blue coats.

Goethe, while traveling in Italy, notices blue deposits on the walls of limekilns near Palermo and observes that these glassy deposits are often substituted for lapis lazuli gems in decorative applications.

A chemical analysis of lapis lazuli, made by Desormes and Clement, is published in France.

M. Tessäert removes glassy deposits, similar to the ones Goethe described, from the glassworks at St. Gobain, France, and suggests to the Société d’Encouragement pour L’Industrie Nationale that it investigate a method for producing an artificial ultramarine blue. Upon examination, the glassy deposits from St. Gobain are found to have a chemical structure similar to lapis lazuli.

The Société offers a prize of 6,000 francs for the manufacture of a synthetic ultramarine blue with a price of less than 300 francs per kilo.

Even though Jean Baptiste Guimet’s process for producing artificial ultramarine blue costs 400 francs per kilo, he is awarded the Société prize.

MARCH 1828
Christian Gottlieb Gmelin, at the University of Tübingen, challenges Guimet’s claim to the Société prize and rival factories in France and Germany begin producing, respectively, Guimet’s and Gmelin’s synthetic ultramarine formulas. By now, genuine ultramarine blue is fetching up to 4,000 francs per kilo. Despite Gmelin’s German nationality, artificial ultramarine blue quickly becomes known as “French Blue” or “Permanent Blue” (even though it is less permanent than the original).

Under the British puppet ruler Shah Shuja, Afghani lapis mining temporarily ceases in Badakshan. A year later, all British forces will be routed from Afghanistan and perish while retreating to India.

William Butler Yeats publishes his poem “Lapis Lazuli,” a meditation on impending war and death.

With the aid of a microscope, art conservators from the Central Laboratories of the Belgian Museums discover tiny traces of cobalt blue mixed with ultramarine blue in a painting thought to be a Vermeer. The discovery indicates the painting is a forgery: cobalt blue, a nineteenth-century pigment, was developed in the attempt to produce a synthetic ultramarine blue.

Revenge was the forger’s motive: Dutch artist Han van Meegeren reasoned that if the same critics who had snubbed his own work praised a “Vermeer” by his hand, he could reveal his deception and be redeemed as a great artist. But after discovering how lucrative the endeavor was, he kept silent and produced five more “Vermeers” and two “De Hooghs.”

Van Meegeren’s fifth “Vermeer” was sold to Hermann Göring. After the war, Van Meegeren was arrested and charged with “treasonable collaboration” for his part in the loss of a national treasure to the Nazis. After six months in jail he admitted that he had made the painting himself. Art critics and scholars flatly rejected his claim, arguing for the authenticity of the works. Under house arrest, Van Meegeren set about painting a new “Vermeer” to demonstrate his point. Ultimately he was convicted of fraud at a one-day trial and sentenced to a year in prison. He died of a heart attack before serving any time.

Ironically, his forged “Vermeers,” which had seduced his harshest critics, were far closer in style and sensibility to his own paintings than to Vermeer’s, which they barely resembled. In addition, the sale of the fake Vermeer to Göring was made only on the condition that 200 Dutch artworks stolen by the Nazis earlier in the war would be returned to Holland.

The United States Air Force is separated from the Army, creating a new US military division. The new Air Force flag is ultramarine blue with the department’s insignia at the center.

Artist Yves Klein works with the pigment dealer, Edouard Adam, to patent International Klein Blue, which is made up of ultramarine blue suspended in synthetic resin. The colorless carrier dries to a matte finish, creating the look of raw pigment and an illusion of depth on the painted surface.

The USSR moves troops into Afghanistan. Mujahideen leader Ahmed Shah Massoud maintains control of the lapis lazuli mines in Badakshan and uses revenues from his ten-percent “revolutionary tax” on gem sales to help fund the war against the Soviets.

With the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan, lapis mining booms—production increases by fifty percent. Massoud’s forces earn an estimated five million dollars per year during this period.

The Taliban seizes power in Afghanistan and the regular lapis trade routes are disrupted. Massoud, now working with the Northern Alliance, fights the Taliban, in part with funds that are again raised through lapis sales.

Ahmed Shah Massoud is killed by a camera-bomb discharged during an “interview” with assassins posing as TV journalists. In retrospect the elimination of Massoud, a potentially strong opponent of the Taliban, is widely interpreted as being part of Al-Qaeda’s preparation for the airline hijackings two days later in the United States. Subsequently the US-lead war against the Taliban halts mining and sales of lapis lazuli. After 20 years of war and neglect, the mines, some of them thousands of years old, are reported to be in very dangerous states of disrepair. Reserves of the gemstone are stockpiled. Prices in the Peshwar market drop to all-time lows.

Matthew Buckingham is an artist living in New York. Recent exhibitions include “Subcutaneous” at the Charles H. Scott Gallery, Vancouver, B.C. and “Inscribing the Temporal,” a group show at the Kunsthalle Exnergasse, Vienna. He is represented by Murray Guy Gallery in New York.

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