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It is the shade of the sea and the sky and is often associated with freedom, as well as sensitivity. ...
2022-10-17 09:00:00

The Adventures of Blue
How the Color Became Popular

“The Starry Night,” Vincent van Gogh, 1889. Source: MoMA/Rawpixel (public domain)
The Adventures of Blue
The Adventures of Blue

The history of colors reflects that of society. At different times, they have organized the symbolic sphere in different ways, conveyed ideas, and evoked emotions. Here’s a closer look at the history of blue.

Read in 8 minutes

Blue is the most peaceful of all colors. It does not instigate rebellion, breaking the rules, or conflict; nor does it hurt, shock, or scandalize. Prominent international organizations—the UN, the EU—have chosen it as their symbolic color. Blue decorates the packaging of sedatives and hospital walls. Dozens of examples can be found in cultural texts confirming the thesis presented by anthropologist and historian Michel Pastoureau, who in his book Blue: The History of a Color argues that his subject is both a naturally occurring phenomenon and a complex cultural construct, “first and foremost a social phenomenon.” In a similar vein, the famous symbol scholar Manfred Lurker writes in Die Botschaft der Symbole: in Mythen, Kulturen und Religionen [The Message of Symbols: In Myths, Cultures, and Religions]: “As all physics ultimately finds its outlet in metaphysics, all optical phenomena refer beyond themselves; color is only a fleeting reflection, an antenna of the invisible world.”

Into the Color

Blue appears in the rainbow; it is the color of the bright sky and flax flowers—reads a fragment of one of the three definitions of blue in the Polish Language Dictionary edited by Witold Doroszewski. It seems trivial—the sky, rainbows, flowers—but in fact it closely reflects how color is defined by anthropology. Folklore scholar Piotr Kowalski writes in Kultura Magiczna [Magical Culture]: “Colors, just like shapes or—more generally—images, are an integral part of objects. Recognizing colors is based on elementary existential experiences resulting from observations of the surrounding world […]. According to the pars pro toto principle, in symbolic thinking, colors represent, and are a part of, the colorful fragments of the Universe.”

The basic human experience also results in values attached to different directions. Observing the sky assumes upward movement—a move forward, towards life and development. It represents the possibility of encountering the new and saying goodbye to the old; it is associated with vitality, power, growth, and change. Nevertheless, duality is inscribed in the traditional order of the world. The opposite of upward movement is moving down—towards the ground, death and decay, straight into the arms of the anxiety that accompanies humanity when the world is in chaos. Here there is decrepitude, withdrawal, feebleness, immobility. Within this world order, the color blue is positioned on the good side—where flax blossoms, the sky is bright and cut through by a multicolored arch.

A great deal of attention is paid to colors. The colors of clothing, interiors, everyday objects are all carefully chosen. The trendiest colors of the year are listed and discussed. Chromotherapy emerges as a possible way to improve mood and wellbeing; color psychology and color theory are explored. There are few who would reduce colors to neurobiology—intuitively they seem to be more than that.

In the aforementioned book, Michel Pastoureau outlines the history of blue from the Neolithic era to the 20th century. His book allows one to realize the many functions performed by color: it can convey ideas, evoke emotions, organize systems, facilitate classification and association, and be an apparatus of hierarchy in society. The scholar claims that the history of colors reflects social history. Society defines color and gives it meaning. 

“IKB 191,” Yves Klein, 1962 (public domain)
“IKB 191,” Yves Klein, 1962 (public domain)

Gods and Barbarians

This paragraph could begin with the spectacular observation that the history of blue lies in the darkness of our past. The first nomads reached for the color to convey their lives—foraging plants, traveling with animals, hunting. However, this would not be accurate. Paleolithic rock paintings feature red, brown, ochre, black, and sometimes white—but no blue. A few thousand years later, in the Neolithic era, people were familiar with dyeing techniques, but they mainly used red and yellow, even though blue was abundant in nature. According to Pastoureau, the ancient Romans dismissed the use of blue as barbaric. They scarcely used it, so that no one would accuse them of civilizational downfall. But ancient Egypt valued blue as a protective color. It was believed to guard against evil forces and ease the journey through the afterlife.

Medieval rulers continued the Roman customs. Art, everyday objects, and fashion were dominated by red, white, purple, and green (associated with vegetation and human fate). For a long time, only the lower strata of society reached for blue. The peasant blue was dull and pale; it faded quickly in the sun. Unsurprisingly, peasants dyed clothing with woad—a wild plant growing in many European regions with a moderate climate. Woad leaves contain indigotin—a dye of rather poor quality. Blue, unlike the big three—red, black, and white—remained a marginal color up until the first half of the 12th century. Its symbolism was modest and its role in European societies was insignificant. Even artists didn’t appreciate blue. For them, the sky was the color of gold, green, or white.

The symbolic poverty of blue is evidenced, for example, by the Arthurian literary cycle that enjoyed great popularity in 12th- and 13th-century Western Europe. The literary chromatic code is strictly defined here: the red knight usually has bad intentions, the black knight is typically the main protagonist, but not necessarily dark and evil, and the white knight is always good and faithful. The green knight is young, inexperienced, and causes a lot of problems. The blue knight didn’t appear until the middle of the 13th century, because, to the recipients of Arthurian legends, blue—as Pastoureau points out—wouldn’t indicate anything in particular. This color wasn’t yet established within the existing social code—it simply didn’t mean anything, at least up to a certain point in history.

In the second half of the 13th century blue became the color of heaven, Mary, kings, princes, and patricians. It triumphantly entered into heraldry, fashion, and iconography. People began associating it with morality, spiritual development, peace, and harmony. The history of color is inextricably linked with the history of dyeing techniques, dyes, and fabrics. In this respect, blue is no exception. In the Middle Ages, it became vivid, saturated—visually attractive thanks to the advancement in dyeing. It gained popularity, and over time, entered churches, and the cult of Mary sealed its success.

In the early Middle Ages, Mary, mother of God, was usually depicted in dark colors that were supposed to symbolize grief after the loss of Jesus. Over time, Mary’s initially dark navy, lustreless cloak became more and more saturated and luminous. Medieval artists highly valued light—they believed that it was an emanation of God, permeating all creation, even the smallest being. Earthly power was believed to have a divine source. The kings wanted to emphasize their unusual—as they thought—status through their clothing, in which red eventually gave way to blue. After all, blue is a synonym of divinity and heaven. It symbolizes purity, fidelity, and caring—the natural order of things. One cannot question something like that.

Color might also have a moral dimension. In Florentine Histories, the writer and philosopher Niccolò Machiavelli lamented the downfall of the people of Florence: “[…] for the youth having become more dissolute than before, more extravagant in dress, feasting, and other licentiousness, and being without employment, wasted their time and means on gaming and women.” Between the 12th and 15th centuries, Europe went to war with ostentatious splendor. The first sumptuary laws were established in Italy at the end of the 12th century; from there they went to France and Germany, and at the end of the 13th century to Poland. Sumptuary laws introduced restrictions on clothing and imports of luxury goods for townspeople, as well as craftsmen and apprentices. Clothing could not be too expensive or multicolored. Colors were censored, and all in the name of Christian virtue and modesty.

The moralizing trend went hand in hand with the Reformation. The reformers were not only famous for their iconoclasm—they were also “chronoclasts.” As part of the introduction of the new order, they wanted to banish color from temples. They thought it dangerous because it was a distraction from God. To them, it represented vanity, corruption, and opulence. Colorful clothing didn’t speak well of an individual. The Protestant wardrobe was distinguished by simplicity of cut, discreet colors, and a lack of adornments. Red was on the list of banned colors—priest and theologian Martin Luther loathed it and compared it to the “Whore of Babylon.” In this chromatic crusade, blue managed to preserve its existing status—it was still associated with heaven and divinity. The “reformed” blue, however, was dull and subdued. The luscious and vivid blue was yet to return.

Blue Melancholy

The great return of blue took place in the 18th century with the invention of Prussian blue by the Berlin paint manufacturer Johann Diesbach. This new dye enabled previously unknown shades. In the Enlightenment, new symbolic meanings began to be assigned to the color. Ever since, blue has been associated with progress, dreams, and freedom. In Romanticism, blue became the color of love, melancholy, daydreaming, and reflection. This symbolism also permeated everyday life. “Chromatic fashion” emerged among young educated Europeans, especially in Germany, England, and France. Many styled themselves as Werther—the protagonist of Goethe’s famous novel—and wore blue dinner jackets and yellow vests. Such an outfit was a message to the world: just like Werther, I am extremely sensitive and emotional; I suffer the pain of existence.

The melancholy dimension of the color repeatedly reverberates through art and culture. Today, the term “blue hour” is known primarily to photographers as the time of day shortly before or after sunset, when light is particularly favorable. In photos taken at that time, one can capture an intensely blue sky. At the beginning of the 20th century in the United States, “blue hour” meant the narrow period of time between leaving work and returning home—a blue “in-between.” Bars filled with tired men, who silently sipped a beer and often ordered another to delay their return home. The idiom “to feel blue” also suggests melancholy and sadness. The word blue in the sense of “sad, resigned, depressed” was first used by the writer Geoffrey Chaucer in the poem The Complaint of Mars around the year 1385. Here, color serves a dual function: it can simultaneously reflect and affect mood.

The titles of color rankings are usually rather grand, and their results predictable. Blue has been winning for years. Pastoureau explains the success of the color, which has come a long way from being of little significance to humanity’s favorite, by the fact that it is less obvious in terms of symbolism than other colors. Blue does not limit, but gives freedom.

Translated from the Polish by Joanna Figiel

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