History of the Color Blue

The modern English word blue comes from Middle English bleu or blewe, from the Old French bleu. Digging a little deeper into the history of blue, historians concluded that the word “blue” did not even exist in ancient Greek times. You can read all of the ancient Greek texts and you’ll never come across a word for “blue.” Even as the English language developed, blue took a distinct backseat to other colors; it was the last color to be named.

The Color Blue in Ancient Times

Blue was a latecomer among colors used in art and decoration as well as language and literature. Cave paintings from 20,000 years ago lack any blue color, probably because blue is rarely present in nature.  Scientists generally agree that humans began to see blue as a color when they started making blue pigments about 6,000 years ago.  Blue was not used for dyeing fabric until long after red, ochre, pink and purple.  Blue dyes were made from plants; usually woad in Europe, and Indigofera tinctoria, or true indigo, in Asia and Africa and Blue pigments were originally made from minerals such as lapis lazulicobalt and azurite.

Lapis Lazuli, a semiprecious stone, was mined in the Hindu Kush Mountains of Afghanistan for more than three thousand years, and was exported to all parts of the ancient world.  The mines were visited by Marco Polo in about 1271; he reported, “here is found a high mountain from which they extract the finest and most beautiful of blues.” In ancient Iran and Mesopotamia, it was used to make jewelry, decorations and vessels. The cost of importing lapis lazuli by caravan across the desert from Afghanistan to the rest of the world was extremely high so only the wealthy could afford this beautiful blue stone.

Lapis also became highly prized among the Egyptians who valued the brilliant bright blue color of this magnificent mineral, and in about 2500 B.C. they developed the first synthetic pigment; It was at this time that an Egyptian word for “blue” emerged. They used chemistry to combine lapis, which was ground into powder, with other ingredients to develop an expensive and highly sought after pigment called Egyptian Blue, and later ultramarine. This pricey pigment was used to paint wood, papyrus and canvas, and was used to color a glaze to make faience beads, inlays, and various vessels. It was often used in funeral statuary and figurines and tomb paintings for the Egyptian Kings and Queens. Blue was considered a beneficial color which would protect the dead against evil in the afterlife. Blue dye was also used to color the cloth in which mummies were wrapped.

In Egypt blue was associated with the sky and with divinity. The Egyptian god Amun could make his skin blue so that he could fly, invisible, across the sky undetected by humans. Blue could also protect against evil; many people around the Mediterranean still wear a blue amulet, representing the eye of God, to protect them from misfortune.

Slowly, the Egyptians began exporting their blue dyes throughout the world, creating demand for them in Persia, Mesopotamia and Rome. Egyptian pigments and dyes were so expensive that only royalty, and the very wealthy, could afford them. Thus, blue remained rare for many centuries, though it slowly became popular enough to earn its own name in various languages.

Beautiful Blue glass was manufactured in Mesopotamia and Egypt as early as 2500 BC, using the same ingredients as Egyptian blue pigment. They also added cobalt, which produced a deeper blue, the same blue produced in the Middle Ages in the stained glass windows of the cathedrals of Saint-Denis and Chartres.

The Ishtar Gate of ancient Babylon (604–562 BC) was decorated with deep blue glazed bricks used as a background for pictures of lions, dragons and aurochs. The Greeks imported indigo dye from India, calling it indikon. They used Egyptian blue in the wall paintings of Knossos, in Crete (2100 BC). It was not considered as one of the four primary colors used in Greek painting, but nonetheless it was used as a background color behind the many friezes on Greek temples and to color the beards of Greek statues.

The Romans also imported indigo dye, but blue eventually became the color of working class clothing as it became easier to procure, while the nobles and rich wore white, black, red and especially violet/purple. Julius Caesar reported that the Celts and Germanic peoples dyed their faces blue to frighten their enemies, so it was considered the color of barbarians. Blue was also considered to be the color of mourning.

The Romans made extensive use of blue for decorating their homes and temples. They made dark blue pigment from indigo in Rome, and imported Egyptian blue pigment from Egypt. Blue pigments were found in the shops of all the color merchants and the walls of Roman villas had frescoes of brilliant blue skies. The Romans had many words for all the different shades of blue.

Blue In the Byzantine Empire and the Islamic World

Dark blue was widely used in the decoration of churches in the Byzantine Empire. In Byzantine art Christ and the Virgin Mary usually wore dark blue or purple robes. Magnificent mosaics decorated Byzantine churches and deep blue shades were used as a background color representing the sky. Lapis lazuli pigment was also used to create the rich blues in Persian miniatures and dyes for the beautiful Persian rugs produced there.

In the Islamic world dark blue and turquoise decorative tiles were widely used to decorate the facades and interiors of mosques and palaces from Spain to Central Asia. Green was believed to be the favorite color of the Prophet Mohammed and only Muslims were allowed to wear white and green. Because of this, blue was the color worn by Christians and Jews.

Blue During the Middle Ages

In the art and life of Europe during the early Middle Ages only the poor wore blue clothing, colored with poor-quality dyes made from the woad plant. Blue played no part in the rich costumes of the clergy or the architecture or decoration of churches. But this all changed dramatically between 1130AD and 1140AD in Paris, when the Abbe Suger installed stained glass windows colored with cobalt blue when he rebuilt the Saint Denis Basilica.  The deep cobalt blue color combined with the light from the red stained glass, filled the church with a beautiful and unusual bluish violet light that stunned all who entered. The church became the marvel of the Christian world, and the color became known as the “bleu de Saint-Denis.”  In the years that followed, the elegant blue stained glass windows were much in demand and added to many other churches including at Chartres Cathedral and Sainte-Chapelle in Paris.

Then in the 12 Century the Roma Catholic Church dictated that painters in Italy (and the rest of Europe consequently) paint the robes of the Virgin Mary with only the new most expensive ultramarine pigment imported from Egypt and Asia. Ultramarine refined out the impurities through a long and difficult process, creating a rich deep blue color. It cost far more than any other color, and it became the luxury color for the Kings and Princes of Europe. Now Blue became even more popular and became associated with holiness, humility and virtue.

King Louis IX of France, better known as Saint Louis (1214–1270), became the first king of France to regularly dress in blue. The coat of arms of the kings of France became an azure or light blue shield, sprinkled with golden fleur-de-lis or lilies. Blue had come from obscurity to become the official royal color.

Once blue became the color of the king, it was quickly imitated by other nobles and became the color of the wealthy and powerful all through Europe. Paintings of the mythical King Arthur even began to show him dressed in blue.

In the Middle Ages in France, and to some extent in Italy, the dyeing of blue cloth was subject to license from the crown or state. In Italy, only a specific guild was permitted to use blue dye, and no others could use it without severe penalty. The wearing of blue implied wealth, status and nobility.

Besides ultramarine, several other blues were widely used in the Middle Ages and later in the Renaissance. Azurite, a form of copper carbonate, was often used as a substitute for ultramarine. It was mined in France, Hungary, Spain and Germany, and it made a pale blue with a hint of green, which was ideal for painting skies.

Another blue often used in the Middle Ages was called tournesol or folium. It was made from the plant Crozophora tinctoria, which grew in the south of France. It made a fine transparent blue valued in medieval manuscripts.

Another common blue pigment was smalt, which was made by grinding blue cobalt glass into a fine powder. It’s deep violet blue was similar to ultramarine, and although its color was vivid and vibrant in frescoes, it lost some of its brilliance when used in oil paintings. It became especially popular in the 17th century, when ultramarine was difficult to obtain. It was employed at times by many famous artists such as TitianTintorettoVeroneseEl GrecoVan DyckRubens and Rembrandt.

The Color Blue In the European Renaissance

Ultramarine was the most prestigious blue of the Renaissance, and patrons sometimes specified that it be used in paintings they commissioned. The contract for the Madone des Harpies by Andrea del Sarto (1514) required that the robe of the Virgin Mary be colored with ultramarine costing “at least five good florins an ounce.”  Good ultramarine was more expensive than gold; in 1508 the German painter Albrecht Dürer reported in a letter that he had paid twelve ducats- the equivalent of forty-one grams of gold – for just thirty grams of ultramarine.

Often painters or clients saved money by using less expensive blues, such as azurite smalt, or pigments made with indigo, but this sometimes caused serious problems. Pigments made from azurite were less expensive, but tended to turn dark and green with time.

The introduction of oil painting during the Renaissance changed the way colors looked and how they were used. Ultramarine pigment, for instance, was much darker when used in oil painting than when used in painting frescoes. To balance their colors, Renaissance artists like Raphael added white to lighten the ultramarine. The sombre dark blue robe of the Virgin Mary became a brilliant sky blue.  Titian created his rich blues by using many thin glazes of paint of different blues and violets which allowed the light to pass through, which made a complex and luminous color, like stained glass. He also used layers of finely ground or coarsely ground ultramarine, which gave subtle variations to the blue.

The Secret of Blue and White Porcelain

In about the 9th century, Chinese artisans abandoned the Han blue color they had used for centuries and began to use cobalt blue which was made with cobalt salts of alumina.  The technique used to manufacture this delicate, fine blue and white porcelain was a closely held secret for centuries.  The plates and vases were shaped and dried.  Then the beautiful blue paint was applied with a brush, covered with a clear glaze, and then fired at extremely high temperatures.

Beginning in the 14th century, this type of porcelain was exported in large quantity to Europe where it inspired a whole style of art, called Chinoiserie. European courts tried for many years to imitate Chinese blue and white porcelain but didn’t succeed until the 18th century after a missionary brought the secret back from China.  Other famous white and blue patterns appeared in Delft, Meissen, Staffordshire, and Saint Petersburg, Russia.

Woad Dye vs Indigo Dye

While blue was an expensive and prestigious color in European painting, it became a common color for clothing during the Renaissance. The rise of the color blue in fashion in the 12th and 13th centuries led to a competitive blue dye industry in several cities in France in particular. They made a blue dye called “pastel” from a common plant in Europe called “woad.,” a plant used to make blue dye by the Celts and Germanic tribes in ancient times. Blue became a color often worn by servants and artisans, not just nobles.  Which is why In 1570, Pope Pius V excluded blue from the list of colors that could be used for ecclesiastical dress and for altar decoration because he considered it too common.

The process of dyeing fabric with “Woad” would be found repugnant today. The process involved soaking the leaves of the plant for up to a week in human urine; ideally urine from men who had been drinking a great deal of alcohol which was said to improve the color. Then the cloth was soaked for another day in the mixture and then put out in the sun, where it turned blue as it dried.

Woad was the primary blue dye used by the commoners in Europe until the 15th Century when Indigo began to be imported. Indigo was obtained from a shrub widely grown in Asia. In 1498, Vasco de Gama opened a trade route to import indigo from India to Europe. Indigo was easy to ship as the dye was turned into bricks.  In India, the indigo leaves were soaked in water, fermented, pressed into cakes, dried into bricks, then shipped to ports in London, Marseille, Genoa, and Bruges.

The countries with large and prosperous pastel industries tried to block the use of indigo. The German government outlawed the use of indigo in 1577, and in France, Henry IV, in 1609, forbade under pain of death, the use of Indigo. It was forbidden in England until 1611, when British traders established their own indigo industry in India and began to import it into Europe.

The efforts to block indigo were in vain; the quality of indigo blue was too high and the price too low for pastel made from woad to compete.

Later, in the 17th century, the British, Spanish, and Dutch established indigo plantations in Jamaica, South Carolina, the Virgin Islands and South America, and began to import American indigo to Europe.  In 1737 both the French and German governments finally allowed the use of indigo.

Another war of the blues took place at the end of the 19th century, between indigo and synthetic indigo, discovered in 1868. The German chemical firm BASF put the new dye on the market in 1897, in direct competition with the British-run indigo industry in India, which produced most of the world’s indigo.

In 1897 Britain sold 10,000 tons of natural indigo on the world market, while BASF sold 600 tons of synthetic indigo. The British industry cut prices and reduced the salaries of its workers, but it was unable to compete; the synthetic indigo was more pure and made a longer lasting blue dye. And it was not dependent upon good or bad harvests. In 1911, India sold only 660 tons of natural indigo, while BASF sold 22,000 tons of synthetic indigo. In 2002, more than 38,000 tons of synthetic indigo was produced, often for the production of blue jeans.

Blue Uniforms

Most German soldiers wore dark blue uniforms until the First World War, with the exception of the Bavarians, who wore light blue. Thanks in part to the availability of indigo dye, the 18th century saw the widespread use of blue military uniforms. In the late 18th century, the blue uniform became a symbol of liberty and revolution. Blue continued to be the color of the field uniform of the US Army until 1902, and is still the color of the dress uniform.

Blue was the color of liberty and revolution in the 18th century, but in the 19th it increasingly became the color of government authority, the uniform color of policemen and other public servants. It was considered serious and authoritative, without being menacing.

The New York City Police Department, modelled after the London Metropolitan Police, was created in 1844, and in 1853, they were officially given a navy blue uniform, the color they wear today

The Color Blue in Modern Times

In fashion blue, particularly dark blue, was seen as a color which was serious but not grim. In the mid-20th century, blue passed black as the most common color of men’s business suits, the costume usually worn by political and business leaders. Public opinion polls in the United States and Europe showed that blue was the favorite color of over 50% of respondents. Green was far behind with twenty per cent, while white and red received about eight per cent each.

In 1873, Levi Strauss, a German immigrant in San Francisco, invented a sturdy kind of work pants made of denim fabric and colored with indigo dye called blue jeans. In 1935, “blue jeans” were raised to the level of high fashion by Vogue magazine. Beginning in the 1950s, they became an essential part of young people’s wardrobes in the United States, Europe, and around the world, and now are a main staple in the wardrobe of people of all ages around the world.

The history of blue as “the color for boys” is an even newer notion that primarily arose after the post World War II baby boom. It came about as a marketing scheme as manufacturers could sell more clothes if some were distinctly for boys, and others were distinctly for girls.

The color Blue is now one of the most popular colors available. Not only is there a word for blue…. there are hundreds of words for all the myriad shades of the beautiful and amazing color Blue!