Blue color in European art history

Vincent Van Gogh. Starry night. 1889 г.

Blue is an extremely soft and cooling contrast to everything troubling, bright, pressing and tiring; it is a picture of peaceful tenderness and delicious freshness; it is fragility itself in comparison with all material cumbersomeness and weight.

Karl Reinhold von Köstlin. Aesthetik

Today the blue color does not surprise us, and we do not even doubt its presence in the color palette. However, this was not always the case, because the notion of color is above all the fact of social life; it is society that “produces” color, gives it a definition and gives meaning, develops codes and values ​​for it, regulates its application and its tasks.

As Goethe said, this color enchants with its carelessness, ease, leading to an unearthly distance, a world of dreams and fantasies. It calms the nervous system, lowers blood pressure, includes self-protective mechanisms of the body. However, the excess of this color can cause a feeling of loneliness, fear, cold emptiness, oppression and even lead to apathy and depression. The taste of blue is not the most appetizing color, but it is associated with coolness and freshness.

Витраж в Шартрском соборе, Франция, XII в.
Stained glass in Chartres Cathedral, France. XII century.

blue till XII century

Humanity knows all the shades of red, black, brown and ocher from immemorial times, but blue — not. Then it was made of woad, true indigo, Lazurite or Azurite, brought to Europe from Asia or Africa, and because of it was very expensive.

The ancient Greeks and Romans in general associated this color with death and the afterlife – according to one theory [1], and according to another – it symbolized fidelity, devotion and innocence, related to Zeus (Jupiter) and Hera (Juno) [2].

With the advent of Christianity, color takes on a different meaning; now it is not equated to any deity, but is the visible manifestation of God in the earthly world. Color is considered a derivative of light – one of its hypostasies. Nevertheless, in the representations of the early Western European Middle Ages, blue remains as unimportant and unreasonable color. Attitude to the colors, their presence or absence in the church depended solely on the opinion of the prelate or theologian.

Most often blue was used in book miniature, as well as mosaic, in combination with green, yellow and white. In the stained-glass windows, it was one of the main colors and embodied the penetration of the transcendent world into the temple, into the hearts of believers, making them involved in the Truth, opening in them a spiritual beginning. Its task was to convey the greatness, the eternal grace of Heaven, descending upon mere mortals in its radiance, wisdom and forgiveness.

Throughout its history, art has not produced anything that could withstand, with respect to decorative effectiveness, a comparison with these series of painted glass.

— wrote Carl Wörman in the “History of the Arts of All Time and Nations” about stained glass in Chartres Cathedral, France.




In Byzantine art, that gave the world the “canons” of Christian icon painting, blue personified the sky, it was a kind of metaphor and served the idea of ​​contemplation, filled emotionally frozen images. It helped to reveal and understand the essence of the narrative, in which the main thing was not the “realistic” depiction of the plot, but the sensual filling of the story.

So, in “Trinity” by Andrei Rublev blue in combination with gold is an organizing color, conveying a feeling of light sadness. We can say that the color of the icon is filled with a pure heavenly color, transferred to the clothes of angels.

The duo of blue and gold has something primordially Russian, natural, even pagan (gold ripened cereals under the high clear sky) and at the same time very Christian.



blue between XII-XV centuries

During this period, for several decades the attitude to color has changed to the completely opposite: it becomes fashionable, aristocratic. This is evidenced by the vesture of the Blessed Virgin: according to its changes it is easy to trace the features and prerequisites of this amazing phenomenon.

The Virgin Mary was not always depicted in blue robes: it was from the 12th century that this color became one of her inalienable attributes. Before that, she was depicted wearing dark colors, because she was mourning for her son. The new image turns out to be less dull and morose, vice versa, it is more clear and cheerful. The spread of the cult of the Blessed Virgin leads to the fact that a new shade of blue takes an increasing place in artistic creation. This color is increasingly appearing in stained glass, clothing, literature and even coats of arms – the first of the European rulers who used this color on their coat of arms, was the French King Louis VI.

By the end of the Middle Ages, this color becomes the most beautiful and noble for some people. In its new capacity, it gradually displaces the red, that previously played the same role. Of particular importance is the combination of these colors: red acquires an antagonist, forming a third color pair: white-black, white-red, red-blue.

From the middle of the XIV century. blue begins to compete with black color, which only benefits him – along with it, blue becomes a color of high morale. Moreover, in the 15th century, colors receive a new discriminatory function, that is, depending on the position of the society, it was allowed and / or forbidden to wear certain colors — knowledge of this fact is important when considering portraits of a given era. Unlike other colors, blue retained its neutrality.

An interesting theory, perceived by many artists of the Renaissance (on average in Europe during the XIV-XVI centuries), put forth the Italian philosopher and astrologer Marsilio Ficino; on it all colors (and the author singled out a 12-particular color wheel) corresponded to a certain energy, elements. So, white — spirit, divine light, black — matter, and blue — air.

Альбрехт Дюрер. Крыло сизоворонки. 1512
Albrecht Dürer. Wing of a European Roller. 1512

blue between XVI-XVIII centuries

The greater interval of this period falls on the era of the Reformation, which declared war on the image and color. Depending on the direction in Religion (Jesuitism, Jansenism, Calvinism, Lutheranism), the attitude toward color also changes; we will not elaborate on this in detail. In most general terms, the Reformation in the middle of the 17th century led to chromophobia. The opponents of color have many arguments. In their opinion, the drawing is much higher and nobler than color, because it is the creation of the spirit, and color is only a material substance, the product of coloring substances; moreover, they believe that color tires the eyes and does not make it possible to clearly distinguish the contours of objects and determine their shape, thereby deterring people from truth and good.

At the beginning of the XVIII century, most artists joined the opinion of scientists; color wins over drawing. This is the time when Isaac Newton has already completed optical experiments, as a result of which he discovered the color spectrum, and the idea of the order of the arrangement of colors began to change: gradually until the end of the XVIII century the division of colors into important and secondary, warm and cold — as we understand them today — was created.

Blue has taken the main place, henceforth it is considered the color of progress, enlightenment, cherished aspirations and the coveted freedoms of mankind. In this metamorphosis of blue, the literature of Romanticism, as well as the French and American revolutions played a decisive role. The invention of artificial Prussian blue, or Berlin blue, in 1709 allowed to achieve new shades of blue and green; Later impressionists and adherents of the plein air erected a cult around it.

blue after XIX century

Поль Сезанн. Большие купальщицы. 1898-1905
Paul Cézanne. The Bathers. 1898-1905

In painting for a long time, artists used contrast bright-dark color. Impressionism made its discovery: warm shades are sunlight, and cold shades represent shadows. Impressionists also re-discovered that the blue color distances nearby objects; their genre paintings, being a direct reflection of reality, are also a kind of “habitat” of blue color, they are immersed in it, appearing as a reality and a dream at the same time. The fleeting moment of life with a blue haze slips away into the infinity of time and space.

The painting “The Great Bathers”, completed by Paul Cézanne a year before his death, is a kind of attempt to find a compromise, to smooth out the contradiction between the real and the imaginary, at least in the scale of the pictorial canvas, the microcosm created by the artist. In fact, the picture is the utopia of a lost paradise, a happy and serene life in the bosom of the nature of men and women, almost outwardly almost indistinguishable from each other, immersing in the airy azure penetrated by the sun, into the blue element of water. The blue color and androgynous figures of the “Big Bathers” are associated with the eastern mythological images, Greek myths about androgynes, bisexual beings, combining the female and masculine beginnings.

Blue is a heavenly color and, plunging into black, it acquires the ring of inhuman sadness. The blue is lighter, the more it is silent until it passes into a state of silent rest and does not become white. The blue color, presented musically, looks like a cello, becoming darker, it resembles the sounds of a double bass, and in its deepest and solemn form – low organ sounds.

Wassily Kandinsky. Selected works on the theory of art (2001)

Fine art, literature, music have always been interconnected. In the works of painters, poets, composers, the images of nature and the artistic images created by them merged. And in this sense nothing has changed in the art of the turn of the XIX-XX centuries, which continued the tradition of the blue color, understanding it as the poetry of loneliness. Symbolism brought to the art a sense of life as a “blue hour” (heure bleue). The “blue hour” reflected the inner state of man on the verge of day and night, when the coming darkness changes objects, depriving them of materiality, and takes the soul to an imagined world of feelings and ideas, covered with sadness.

Today, blue color is also associated with contemplation, concentration, immersion in oneself; he always has a polysemy, even if it is withdrawn from everyday life, which allows it to project him onto the sacred and worldly life, events, objects and abstraction.

Николай Рерих. Книга мудрости. 1924
Nicholas Roerich. Book of Wisdom. 1924

Рене Магритт. Медитация. 1937
René Magritte. Meditation. 1937

Sources used in the russian language:
  1. Michel Pastoureau “Blue: the history of a coolor”, 2017. — 144 с.
  2. “Blue” (All colors of the world), 2009. — 216 с.
  3. Ian Baleka “Blue — the color of life and death. Metaphysics of color”, 2008 — 408 с.

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