Thursday, January 22, 2009

Blue, Indigo and Violet


... is the color of the sky, and the oceans and of tranquility. Lapis lazuli was the stone that was ground to create the intense blue of medieval paintings and Tibetan wall murals; this stone
was first imported from India. It’s name changed to ultramarinus, “coming from beyond the sea”, but today we use ultramarine to describe this intense shade of blue.

Perhaps because of its scarcity in nature, blue became more revered and prized before the advent of synthetic dyes.

Reticulated plate (Meissen c. 1774-1814) Blue Onion


... is derived from the Greek term meaning “from India.” Once upon a time, or actually several times upon a time, indigo was the most important dye in the world. At one time it helped prop
up an empire, and then later it helped destabilize it. Ancient Egyptians used indigo-dyed cloths to wrap their mummies, in Central Asia it was one of the main color of carpets, and for more than three centuries in Europe and America it was one of the more controversial of dyestuffs…the original blue jeans, invented by Levi Strauss in the California gold rush of 1850, were dyed in France with indigo grown in the west indies…indigo can give many results from stone-washed pale to nearly black…

Indigo resist fabric used in the 18th century in America. Most probably printed in England.


... has had many names – purple –mauve – lavender…..first called Tyrian purple by an English chemist then changed to a more marketable name of a flower – violet. Violet is the last color
in the rainbow spectrum, symbolizing both the ending of the known and the beginning of the unknown…It is the color of emperors and royalty.

The Phoenicians were traders of the luxurious ancient dye made from a type of shellfish, murex trunculus; the Japanese extracted the color from the murasaki root; but the English were the first to develop the modern synthetic dye in 1856.

Madame Gautreau (unfinished copy) 1884, oil on canvas

John Singer Sargent painted this famous portrait of Madame X, aka Madame Virginie Amelie Avegno Gautreau, who was a professional beauty of her day. Her reputation as such was built
on her use of violet-colored powder and low-cut dresses. The extreme whiteness of her skin, said the skeptics, was caused by her ingestion of arsenic. She swallowed a small amount every day, it was said, just enough to maintain her otherworldly shade of lavender-white without actually killing herself.

The Colour Amour exhibit will continue on the 4th floor through March 26, 2008.

Visit Smithsonian Global Sound on the Library's Articles and Databases page to listen to two related playlists of streaming audio. Following the tab for Playlist Folders and go to the bottom of the page. Under "Course Folders" there are two playlists:

"Songs of Blue" (24 tracks, 61 minutes in length)

"Songs of Purple and Indigo" (8 tracks, 22 minutes in length)

Recommended reading:

Colors: What They Mean And How To Make Them by Anne Varichon (Abrams, 2006)

Illuminating the Renaissance: The Triumph of Flemish Painting in Europe by Thomas Kren and Scot McKendrick (Getty Museum, 2003)

Strapless: John Singer Sargent and the Fall of Madame X by Deborah Davis (Penguin Group, 2003)

America’s Indigo Blues: Resist-Printed and Dyed Textiles of the Eighteenth Century by Florence H. Pettit (Hastings House, 1974)

Blue and White Japan by Amy Sylvester Katoh (Charles Tuttle, 1996)

Islamic Tiles by Venetia Porter (Interlink Books, 1995)

1000 Tiles: Ten Centuries of Decorative Tiles (Chronicle Books, 2004)

Chinese Indigo Batik Designs by Lu Pu (Dover Publications, 2007)

Meissen’s Blue and White Porcelain by Nicholas Zumbulyadis (Schiffer Publishing, 2006)

John Singer Sargent
by Carter Ratcliff (Artabras, 1982)

Blue: The History of a Color by Michel Pastoureau (Princeton Univ. Press, 2001)

Mauve: How One Man Invented a Color That Changed the World by Simon Garfield (Norton, 2001)

The Inventive Art of Japanese Shaped Resist Dyeing by Yoshiko Wada, Mary Kellogg Rice and Jane Barton (Kodansha International, 1983)

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