In Lovely Blueness: Adventures in Troubled Light

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In 2004 Colm Toibin curated an exhibition at the Chester Beatty Library in Dublin called 'Blue' which consisted of blue objects from the collection. This is his introduction to the catalogue.

‘With a new social order,’ Michel Pastoureau writes, ‘came a new order of colours.’ (19) In European coats of arms, for example, blue appears five per cent of the time in 1200, fifteen per cent in 1250 and thirty per cent in 1300. The King of France began to wear blue. Part of the reason for the growth in blue’s popularity was progress in France and England in the cultivation of woad and improvement in dyeing techniques. ‘In the twelfth and thirteenth centuries,’ Michel Pastoureau writes, ‘blue at long last became a first-rate beautiful colour - the colour of Mary and royalty, and thus the rival of red. During the following four or five hundred years, these two colours shared the preeminent position over all others and in many spheres formed a partnership of contrast: red versus blue meant the festive versus the moral, the material versus the spiritual, the near versus the far, the masculine versus the feminine.’ (20) By the late fourteenth century the French poet Guillaume de Machaut could write: ‘He who would rightly judge colours and pronounce their true meaning, must place before all others beautiful blue.’ (21) A century later, map makers began to make water blue instead of green.
The popularity of blue, especially in its darker manifestations, was greatly helped by the Protestant and Calvinist distrust of colour. The darker shades of blue became associated with austerity and morality; later during the French Revolution blue became associated with soldiers fighting for the Republic and later for France (the Catholic and royal forces used white banners). By 1848, however, blue was replaced by red and slowly became the colour of the centre and then of the right.
As scientists and philosophers worked on theories of colour in the eighteenth century, blue became increasingly important. ‘Far from being a marginal colour, as it had been in ancient and medieval colour systems,’ Pastoureau writes, ‘blue now became central to new chromatic classifications spawned by the Newtonian revolution.’ (22) Also, blue clothes, even light blue, became fashionable. This was, Pastoureau writes, ‘confirmed and indeed amplified by an increase in the number of words for shades of blue in many languages.’ (23) The American novelist William Gass in his ‘On Being Blue: A Philosophical Inquiry’ lists some of these words in English: ‘For our blues we have the azures and ceruleans, lapis lazuli, the light and dusty, the powder blues, the deeps: royal, sapphire, navy and marine; there are the pavonian or peacock blues, the reddish blues: damson, madder and cadet, hyacinth, periwinkle, wine wisteria and mulberry; there are the sloe blues, a bit purpled or violescent, and then the green blues, too: robin’s egg and eggshell blue, beryl, cobalt, glaucous blue, jouvence, turquoise, aquamarine…For our blues we have those named for nations, cities, regions: French blue, which is an artificial untramarine, Italian, Prussian, Swiss and Brunswick blue, Chinese blue, a pigment which has a peculiar reddish bronze cast when in lump-form and dry, in contrast to China blue which is a simple soluble dye; we have Indian blue, an indigo, Hungarian, a cobalt, the blues of Parma and Saxony. Paris, Berlin and Dresden, those of Bremen and Antwerp, the ancient blues of Armenia and Alexandria…’ (24)
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