Vegder's Blog

June 18, 2012

I’M SO BLUE. HOW ‘BOUT YOU? The color blue in Japanese art and elsewhere – Part One

Fair warning: This posting will take a little longer to get off the ground than usual. You should come back every few days, if you are so inclined, to see what’s new. I have other things to do at the moment and, to be honest, I am not a great juggler. My apologies. Also, like all of the other postings this one will be all over the place, difficult to understand, lacking cohesion, but, like all of the others, well-intentioned. So, why don’t we get right down to it now?

Blue Trees – I went into Seattle for a few days around  the July 4th celebration this year. While downtown area I walked past the Westlake Center and saw the blue trees, a creation of an artist. Fortunately my friend, Evan Black, was able to take some photos for me. Below is one of them.

   I am not really interested in the artis’s motivation for this ‘installation’. Howevever, what did strike me was the similarity to the artworks made by Yves Klein (イヴ·クライン: 1928-62) back in the 1950s and 60s when he created pieces which were saturated with this electric blue look. Below is one of Klein’s works, S41 from an edition of 300 from 1961 and later. The image was posted at Flickr by sprklg.

What is blue? Who is blue? It doesn’t take an idiot to know that blue can be ‘viewed’ in many different ways, both visually and intellectually. So why not start with blue as a mood?

[An aside: I am slapping my forehead. What about Mood Indigo? You know, the tune Duke Ellington introduced in 1930. I’ll get to this one later. Bear with me.]

My question: Is sadness described in Japan as being blue like it is in the West? I don’t know. Maybe I should ask someone. Maybe I should consult the novels of Haruki Murakami (村上春樹: b. 1949). No. He’s too modern. No. He is too good. I think I’ll consult his works anyway. While I may not know how the Asians have regarded the essence of blueness, I do know what it means in the West. That is why I am beginning with two of my favorite Picasso (ピカソ: 1881-1973) paintings dating from his blue period. The first one is in the National Gallery in D.C. and the other one is from the museum in Cleveland.

    Courtesy of the National Gallery of art, Washington, D.C.

The Tragedy (Poor People on the Seashore) from 1903 “…is glib and sentimental – awash in self-pity.” John Richardson describes it succinctly: “Barefoot and in rags, the family is depicted literally blue with cold, standing on blue sand against a blue sky and bluer sea. A small boy huddles up to his father… opposite his becomingly draped Tanagra-like mother who looks glumly downward.”

However, a much more important painting, La Vie, also from the same year, is both enigmatic and explanatory at the same time. I have spent inordinate amount of time standing before this canvas, lost in its mysteries and its revelations. There is a whole chapter in Richardson biography of Picasso, vol. 1, devoted to this painting. He tells us: “Picasso very seldom gave names to his paintings and usually hated the titles that dealers, critics or art historians invented. A rare exception is La Vie. This ambitious, not to say pretentious, title is first recorded within a week or so of the work’s completion, so it was thought up by the artist himself, or at least had his approval.”

   This painting, a masterpiece, is in the Cleveland Museum of Art. I found it elsewhere on the web and glad I did. I hope you share my feelings about this one.

How do the above paintings differ from one made nearly 390 years earlier? A painting by Sebastian del Piombo (セバスティアーノデルピオンボ: ca. 1485-1547) from ca. 1513 showing the Virgin’s anguished lament of the death of her son, a Pietà ( ビエタ), which is unlike almost all other versions of this motif. Mary is dressed in blue, the color which here represents the fact that she is the Queen of Heaven, but which also fits the mood perfectly – the dark, somber, devastatingly depressive mood – even if it is most likely an anachronism – my own personal reading of this picture. What do you think?

I found this image posted at

Maybe this would be a good time to go back to Murakami. At the beginning of his novel Norwegian Wood a passenger on board a 747 becomes nostalgic as the plane is about to land in Hamburg. Why? Because of one particular Beatles song, but only in orchestral form,  “…began to flow from the ceiling speakers.” The passenger is so shaken by his memories that a stewardess asks if he is okay. A little later she asks again:

“I’m fine, thanks,” I said with a smile. “Just feeling kind of blue.”
“I know what you mean,” she said. “It happens to me, too, every once in a while.” 

At another point in the novel a character writes about rainy days when all he can do is put on a record, Kind of Blue by Miles Davis, and set it on repeat so he can listen to it over and over and over.

In one of Murakami’s short-stories there is a similar passage:

Sometimes when she felt particularly blue and loathsome to herself, she would
write long and deeply felt letters. 

Now, before we leave Picasso (ピカソ: 1881-1973) and his expression of blue moods, I need to show you one more of his paintings, Weeping Woman from 1937. Could grief get any more real than this? [That’s rhetorical.]

   I found this posted at Flickr by jmussuto.

I have a personal relationship with this painting. When I was younger and wanted to be an artist or thought I could be one, I painted a copy of this painting on the front of a tee-shirt. Boy was I naive. More so than now. Anyway, I was so meticulous that I even mimicked the pentimenti. Look it up. I must have worked on that shirt for about 150 hours and sold it $45.00. You do the math. That comes to $3.33 cents or so an hour. The shirt buyers loved me. Any wonder why? In retrospect, I should have been just as blue as all of the examples I have shown you above. But, like I said, I was too naive to know better. True confessions.

So what did Matisse have to say? In The Blue Moment: Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue and the Remaking of Modern Music there is a quote from Henri Matisse (アンリ·マティス: 1869-1954) regarding Prussian blue: “What a difference there is between a black tinted with Prussian blue and a black tinted with ultramarine,’ he wrote. ‘The black with ultramarine has the warmth of tropical nights, but tinted with Prussian blue it has the chill of a glacier…”

One (Philosophical) Perception of Blueness – Before I give you the quote from Bishop Berkeley (ジョージ・バークリ: 1685-1783) I have to admit that I am a light-weight to no-weight when it comes to deep thinking. In my freshman year at college I took a philosophy course and that (along with the young, angry teacher who clearly wished he was somewhere else) convinced me that philosophy was not my thing. Of course, at times I had to read certain philosophers, but then again we sometimes have to do things we don’t want to just to get through the day (or course), of course. That said, here is a quote from his A Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge from 1710.

140. In a large sense, indeed, we may be said to have an idea or rather a notion of spirit; that is, we
understand the meaning of the word, otherwise we could not affirm or deny anything of it. Moreover,
as we conceive the ideas that are in the minds of other spirits by means of our own, which we suppose
to be resemblances of them; so we know other spirits by means of our own soul, which in that sense is
the image or idea of them; it having a like respect to other spirits that blueness or heat by me perceived
has to those ideas perceived by another. 

Just a note: Berkeley’s name is pronounced “bark-lee”, I think. Not like that university city in California.

Another philosophical approach – In On Being Blue: A Philosophical Inquiry the author, William H. Gass mentions that Giotto painted the demons of hell as blue creatures. I had forgotten this. Giotto (ジオット: ca. 1267-1337) is the first great, great, great European artists and I can only assume that his choices of color were not entirely arbitrary. Below is a detail from one of his frescoes as posted at commons.wikimedia.

Do different people have different concepts of blue-ness? Of course they do. Take Franz Marc (フランツ・マルク: 1880-1916) of the Blue Rider group. He said: “Blue is the male principle, severe and spiritual. Yellow is the female principle, gentle, happy and sensual. Red is matter, brutal and heavy.” Below is his small blue horses. I found it at commons.wikimedia.

More music – Musical reference appear sprinkled through the text above. Not that I had thought of it before, but the numerous titles and terms which include the color blue could almost be a parlor game. What about ‘the blues?’ or Gershwin’s brilliant Rhapsody in Blue? [I’ll add others as they occur to me. Odds are there will be more.]

Odds and ends

1) Alfred Hitchcock (アルフレッドヒッチコック: 1899-1980) once said “The best practical joke I ever played… was at a London hotel, where I gave a dinner party for Gertrude Lawrence. I always thought blue was such a pretty color, but none of the food we eat is blue. So at this party all the food was blue. I had the soup dyed blue, the trout, the peaches, the ice cream.” This was in the early 1930s.

   I found this photo of Alfred Hitchcock at Flickr. It was posted by twm 1340. I cropped it and tinted it blue.

Just in case you were wondering – There was a book first published in 1878, The Art and Science of Cooking, which states: “All mineral substance, except pure ultra marine and Prussian blue, are poisonous. Brilliant colors can be produced without using poisonous substances.” Remember, the author said this in 1878 and not I. Do you think Alfred Hitchcock, a man who made movies with plots including poisons, ever read this book? Probably not.

2) Micro-spectrophotometry has been used in an attempt to determine whether a color being studied is indigo or Prussian blue.

3) There seems to be some dispute as to when Prussian blue was first created, 1704 or 1710. The same is true for the date when it was first imported into England. One source says it was in 1756 and another 1760 when it was brought over from Frankfurt, Germany by Louis Steinberger – made from his own secret formula. In time Louis changed his name and his company became Lewis Berger and Sons. At the beginning of the 20th century – possibly 1911 – they merged with Sherwin Williams.

Note: Most scholars agree that Prussian blue was discovered in 1704. So forgot all of those other numbers.

4) In 1749 Pierre Joseph Maquer performed some experiments in which he dyed silk a Prussian blue by infusing  “…directly in[to] the fiber using a combination of ferrous salts and potassium ferocyanide. This new dye was immediately accepted because its brilliance especially on silk surpassed that of the dark blue of indigo or woad.” Maquer published his research. His book “…swept away a great number of prejudices that existed then in this special area of the craft of dyeing. The author, analyzing the various processes sought to account for the reasons for various dye phenomena by basing his analysis primarily on the nature and properties of silk, considered by him as a midway point between animal and vegetable fibers. First a believer in Hellot’s physical theory, Macquer later realized the absorbing capacity of a fiber for a dye could not be explained by the greater or lesser receptivity of their pores, but rather as a result of particular « affinity » between dye and fiber. [¶] Owing to his very prophetic interpretation, Macquer is really considered in chemical history as the precursor of all work in chemical affinity.”

   ©Victoria and Albert Museum, London
This spectacular silk moiré dress dyed with Prussian blue was created in Britain in ca. 1858.

There is another silk dress from 1874-5 which shows the depth of color which Prussian blue could produce. There is a “Label on tape inside bodice: ‘John J. Stevens, Importer and dealer in Paris modes/ 282 Washington Street/ Boston”. It makes for a wonderful contrast with the gown shown above.

5) There is a story, as recounted by an acquaintance of Van Gogh, that the artist wanted to understand ‘tones’ better so he decided to take piano lessons. “This, however, did not last long, for seeing that during the lessons Van Gogh was continually comparing the notes of the piano with Prussian blue and dark green and dark ocher, and so on, all the way to bright cadmium-yellow, the good man [the piano teacher] thought that he had to do with a madman, in consequence of which he became so afraid of him that he discontinued the lessons.”

6) According to a book called Mental_Floss… a Prussian blue crayon was introduced in 1949. However, by 1958 it was considered politically incorrect and the name was changed to Midnight blue. Besides, the kids didn’t know where Prussia was. They still don’t. Below is a picture posted by Becky Bokum at Flickr. I can’t tell you that one of these crayons is a Prussian/Midnight blue, but, then again, I can’t tell you that it isn’t.

7) While you will read below references to Prussian blue being poisonous clearly there are other substances which are considered equally if not more so. Why else would a purgative of water followed by ingestion of Prussian blue be recommended for thallium poisoning. Prussian blue is “…believed to be more effective than activated charcoal in binding thallium and preventing absorption from the gastro-intestinal tract. Prussian blue also prevents intestinal reabsorption.” (Quoted from: Human Toxicology by Jacques Descotes)

8) In Triage For Civil Support: Using Military Medical Assets To Respond To Terrorist Attacks (2004) there is a description of what to do in case of the use of a radiological dispersion device (an RDD). “There was also broad agreement on the need to alert officials responsible for federal assets that could be made available to California in the event of an attack, including the preparation of medical-grade Prussian Blue (potassium permanganate) at Oak Ridge National Laboratory for possible emergency distribution in California. It was noted that while commercial-grade Prussian Blue might be made available, in most cases it was likely to be too contaminated with other compounds to permit its use for medical purposes, even in an emergency.”

9) This note will be a bit inscrutable. I apologize for this in advance, but if I make it clearer I will give away too much you should find out and enjoy for yourself.

Vladimir Nabokov (ウラジーミル・ナボコフ: 1899-1977), a lover of the works of Nikolai Gogol (ニコライ・ゴーゴリ: 1809-52), was analyzing the main character in the latter’s Dead Souls (死せる魂 : 1842)- a great novel. Nabokov said: “If I paint my face with home made Prussian Blue instead of applying the Prussian Blue which is sold by the state and cannot be manufactured by private persons, my crime will be hardly worth a passing smile and no writer will make of it a Prussian Tragedy.”

10) In the middle of the 19th century a Scotsman, Robert Fortune, went to China as an ‘industrial spy’. He disguised himself as a mandarin. He went to discover and steal the secrets of the Chinese tea industry. In For All the Tea in China… by Sarah Rose it says that he discovered how and why the Chinese were adulterating the tea they sold to the British. At one of the green tea factories in Shanghai he noticed that all of the workers seemed to have exceedingly bright blue-stained fingers. This was due to the fact that the tea was being processed with gypsum mixed with Prussian blue because the Chinese thought the British would be more inclined to purchase tea which looked a deep green.

Rose notes that cyanide is present in Prussian blue, but adds that: “Fortunately for the tea drinkers of Britain, Prussian blue is a complex molecule, so it is almost impossible to release the cyanide ion from it and the poison passes harmlessly through the body.”

11) Anthea Callen in her The Art of Impressionism: Painting Technique & the Making of Modernity mentions a number of artists who used Prussian blue. This is not surprising and I will list a few here: Ingres, Baron Gros, Monet and Renoir. Theodore Rousseau rarely used it. Callen even notes that Prussian blue even went out of fashion somewhat: “Another studio colour, Prussian blue – very dark, dull and with a greenish cast that tended to become greener with yellowing in the oil hinder – was also rarely used after this date, being replaced by the brighter cobalt blue.”

12) On November 1, 1986 there was a terrible toxic spill into the Rhine near Basel, Switzerland. The culprit: Prussian blue. An investigation found that Prussian blue had been shrink wrapped for storage at a Sandoz warehouse. Since shrink wrapping involves heat and Prussian blue does not combust easily. The chemical can smolder for a long time without smoke or flame. Eventually is began to burn more aggressively. The local authorities tried not to pour water on it to avoid causing a huge pollution problem, but the fire got out of hand. Eventually “The water washed tonnes of pesticides and mercury into the river from the warehouse.”

This reminded me of a poem, Cologne, by Samuel Taylor Coleridge (サミュエル・テイラー・コールリッジ: 1772-1834):

In Köhln, a town of monks and bones,
And pavements fang’d with murderous stones
And rags, and hags, and hideous wenches;
I counted two and seventy stenches,
All well defined, and several stinks!
Ye Nymphs that reign o’er sewers and sinks,
The river Rhine, it is well known,
Doth wash your city of Cologne ;
But tell me, Nymphs, what power divine
Shall henceforth wash the river Rhine ? 

13) When Prussian blue was first discovered its commercial production was expensive. This color became a symbol of wealth in the decoration of the main social rooms of affluent families. In less wealthy homes the blue might be toned down. According to the “Old House Journal” of January-February 1996 Prussian blue was never used in the kitchens.

The Kitchen Sink Theory of Art History – This is pretty much what it sounds like. If there is a reference or inference or deference or preference then it is worth throwing into the mix. Now, I didn’t think this would ever happen, but the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein (ルートヴィヒ·ウィトゲンシュタイン: 1889-1951) has popped his egghead up in this post. Of course all it shows is how abysmally ignorant I can be at times – most times. Wittgenstein is thought by a large portion of the elite intellectual world to be the greatest philosopher of the 20th century. The rest of the elite intellectual world don’t agree.

Wittgenstein’s Blue and Brown Books are considered essential reading. I have dabbled, but clearly not enough to find out that they mention Prussian blue in a discussion of how we perceive things – all things.

      There is one way of avoiding at least partly the occult appearance of the processes of thinking, and it is, to replace in these
processes any working of the imagination by acts of looking at real objects. Thus it may seem essential that, at least in certain
cases, when I hear the word “red” with understanding, a red image should be before my mind’s eye. But why should I not
substitute seeing a red bit of paper for imagining a red patch? The visual image will only be the more vivid. Imagine a man
always carrying a sheet of paper in his pocket on which the names of colours are co-ordinated with coloured patches. You
may say that it would be a nuisance to carry such a table of samples about with you, and that the mechanism of association
is what we always use instead of  it. But this is irrelevant; and in many cases it is not even true.  If, for instance, you were
ordered to paint a particular shade of blue called “Prussian Blue”, you might have to use a table to lead you from the word
“Prussian Blue” to a sample of the colour, which would serve you as a copy.

Prussian blue: its history, chemistry and impact on the art world – especially Japan 

On October 6, 1816 and American, George Ticknor,  from Boston wrote: “On our road today we passed through Grossenhain where Prussian blue was discovered in…” Ticknor left a blank space here where he meant to fill in the year later. In a footnote in a book which published this journal it says: “…Prussian blue, a very dark blue pigment, one of the first, which was discovered accidentally by the chemist and paint-maker Heinrich Diesbach and the alchemist Johann Konrad Dippel sometime between 1704 and 1705.”

Diesbach’s dates and early biography are said to be unknown, but Dippel (1673-1734)  is another story. He was a Pietist theologian, an alchemist and a physician. It was in his laboratory that Diesbach created Prussian blue. The two men later opened a factory in Paris.

A footnote in The Art of Dyeing in the History of Mankind gives the most detailed explanation of the discovery of Prussian blue which I have found so far. “Diesbach, precipitating an alum solution to make alumina then called corpo bianco (white ground) which constituted the base for the making of cochineal lacquer, had employed potash supplied him by the alchemist Johann Conrad Dippel. With potash, Dippel had several times purified an oil produced by the distillation of animal residues, called oleum animale Dippeli. It contained therefore many impurities, among which was cyanide. Furthemore [sic], the alum used by Diesbach must have been like that from Liege, highly impure owing to the presence of iron, so much so that when the maker put the two substances together to precipitate the allumina, which was supposed to become white, he noted with surprise that it became blue. The new color was noted in the Miscellanea Berolinensia (Vol. 1, 1710) and in the meantime Dippel, who had studied all the circumstances that had led to the producing of the blue color, was able to reproduce it at will, although he kept the method secret.” Someone named Woodward published the method in 1724.

A quote from The Poisoner’s Handbook, also mentioned below, says that Diesbach, a painter, “…spent hours in the laboratory of a Berlin chemist, trying to create a new shade of red paint. He swirled together wilder and wilder mixtures, eventually mixing dried blood, potash (potassium carbonate), and green vitriol (iron sulfate), then stewing them over an open flame. He expected the flask to yield a bloody crimson, but instead a different brilliance appeared—the deep violet-blue glow of a fading twilight. Diesbach called the vivid pigment Berlin blue; English chemists would later rename it Prussian Blue.”

Ferric ferrocyanide – Fe4[Fe(CN)6]3

This pigment is also known at times under the name of Antwerp blue, Berlin blue, Paris blue and Chinese blue. In a book on Wood Coatings: Theory and Practice describes this pigment as “Very dark blue, finely divided, amorphous, green blue in transmitted light”. It adds that this is the “Earliest of ‘modern’ pigment colours first made c. 1704 and well known by 1750″. Under the heading of ‘Properties” it says: “Transparent but with high tinting strength. Fairly permanent but sensitive to alkalis. Very toxic by ingestion, inhalation, and skin contact; in contact with acids liberates toxic gas”. “Very toxic by ingestion” seems to contradict the testimony given above in The Art and Science of Cooking from 1878. I’ll go with the book on wood coatings published in 2009.

So how poisonous is Prussian blue? Well… the Wood Coatings… book makes it fairly clear: “Pigment toxicity varies from the innocuous (e.g. chalk) through the harmful (e.g. cobalt pigments) to toxic (e.g. lead and cadmium containing materials) to very toxic (e.g. vermilion, Prussian blue). The maximum permissible limits of exposure to such materials is constantly being revised, invariably downward, as new evidence becomes available.”

In The Poisoner’s Handbook, published in 2011, it says that the test for cyanide is called the Prussian blue test. In 1918 a “…driven and talented chemist named Alexander Gettler…” persuaded his boss to set up the first toxicology lab for New York City. “”One reliable way to then check for cyanide was called the Prussian blue test. To begin it, Gettler took a little of the distilled liquid, added some iron-rich salts, and heated the mixture. As it cooled, a muddy brown layer settled at the bottom of of the flask. He then added hydrochloric acid, drop by drop, until the dirty sludge started to dissolve. If the sludge contained a high level of cyanide, a brilliant blue layer would almost immediately form in the flask. If there was only a trace of poison, there would be no blue flash. Instead the sediment would glint green before slowly turning blue.”

In Chemistry and Chemical Reactivity it says: “Prussian blue was first made by a German artist in 1704, but the nature of the compound was not understood until well into the 20th century.”

Prussian blue and photography – I have to admit something to you – I have a soft spot, intellectually, for that very remarkable British family, the Herschels. It started with William Herschel and his sister, what’s-her-name… Caroline, and has continued with William’s son John (ジョン.ハーシェル: 1792-1871). John is the man who in 1839 gave us the terms photograph, photography and positive and negative – as applied to that field. John, like his father, did a lot of other things, too, but it is photography that matters to us here, and now. “Paper simple washed with a solution of Ferrosesquicyanuret of potassa is highly sensitive to the action of light. Prussian blue is deposited (the base being necessarily supplied by the destruction of one portion of the acid, and the acid by decomposition of another.) After half an hour or an hour’s exposure to sunshine, a very beautiful negative photograph is the result, to fix which, all that is necessary is to soak it in water, in which a little sulphate of soda is dissolved, to ensure the fixity of the Prussian blue deposited.” There is more, but how much technical stuff can one person stand. Left at this point I am trying to describe what is now known as a cyanotype. Below is an example by Charles Albert (1820-82). It shows an 18 year old Turkish woman born in Romania. The photo was taken in 1881.

Anna Children Atkins (1799-1871) along with her father was one of the early experimenters in photography. She applied Herschel’s methods for making plants the subject of her studies and “…recorded specimens of seaweed with photograms in her serially-published work entitled British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions (1843-1853) – what many scholars have acknowledged as the first photographically-illustrated book.” Below is an example of her work from 1854 and now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Anyone familiar with the early history of photography knows the work of Julia Margaret Cameron. They would probably also recognize her portrait of Sir John Frederick William Herschel, who she called ‘her first teacher’. Below is one of her albumen portraits of him. This one is from 1867.

   © National Portrait Gallery, London

Most of us may not know much about this man today, but Herschel is buried near the tomb of Sir Isaac Newton in Westminster Abbey. That’s quite impressive. I checked the abbey’s web site and they confirmed this.

Prussian blue and the blueprint – As I understand it – and I am not completely positive about this one – John Herschel invented the cyanotype in 1842. That part I get, but it is the  next part which stumps me a bit. Supposedly he kept control, under patent, the process until he died in 1871. In the Encyclopedia of Nineteenth Century Photography it states: “Cyanotype did not begin to enjoy wide use, however, until 1872, the year following Herschel’s death, when it was taken up commercially by Marion and Company of Paris, who bestowed upon it the proprietary name of ‘Ferro-prussiate,’ and marketed a paper chiefly for copying plans in drawing offices. Thus the word ‘blueprint’ entered our language, to describe the first reprographic process, with its advantages of low material cost compared with silver photography, and a simplicity of processing that required nothing but water. The manufacture of blueprint paper grew rapidly into a profitable industry, becoming the dominant process of photocopying for the next 80 years.”

Below is a blue print, dated 1902. It was posted at commons.wikimedia by Adrian Michael.

John Constable and Prussian blue – In 1991 Sarah Cove wrote in Constable’s Oil Painting Materials and Techniques: “The system with which Constable painted a ‘finished’ work changed relatively little from 1802 to the mid-1820s… The first layer of paint applied to the surface was the ‘dead-colouring’ of the sky. This was laid on with a large brush, using thin washes consisting mostly of lead white and prussian blue, around contours roughly corresponding to the outline of trees and horizon…”

I mention this because, like Picasso, I adore the works of Constable and any reference to his use of Prussian blue makes him fair game for this post. Below is one of Constable’s versions of Salisbury Cathedral. It is in the collection of the National Gallery of Canada. Notice the sky.

Van Gogh, Delacroix and Prussian blue – In Van Gogh and the Colors of the Night it says: “While his friends were the model for his artistic attitude, Delacroix was yet again his mentor in his use of color. Van Gogh was very interested in Delacroix’s color theories, and particularly admired his use of two particular colors: blue and yellow.” The blue was Prussian blue a color which Van Gogh’s Dutch predecessors, Maris, Mauve and Israëls, shied away from. Then Van Gogh wrote that “…it’s [i.e., the palette colors of yellow and blue] found in that of Delacroix, who had a passion for the two colors most disapproved of, and for the best of reasons, lemon and Prussian blue.”

Just so you will be able to see what Van Gogh was talking about I have chosen two different paintings – they don’t get much more different as contrasts in 19th century traditional, representational art. The first one, on the left below, is by Jozef Israëls (1824-1911) is from fairly late in his career and is in the collection of the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. The one on the right is by Eugène Delacroix (1798-1863) from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.


Van Gogh wrote that it was wrong to use Prussian blue in the painting of faces because it “…ceases to be flesh and becomes wood.” However, the use of Prussia blue was different when dealing with flowers. In one of his paintings of irises, this one where the flowers in a yellow vase stand our against a yellow ground, was painted with pure Prussian blue. Below is a reproduction of that painting which I found at commons.wikimedia.

Bladder control – There is a wonderful item in the Victoria and Albert Museum, an animal bladder, that was used to hold an artist’s pigment. In this case it holds Prussian blue. Otherwise I wouldn’t be mentioning it – even if it is really neat. Turns out that this is what artists often used to store their paints prior to the invention of the metallic tube in the 1830s. Funny thing is that I read somewhere that Van Gogh decades later was the first artist to paint directly from the tube. Maybe it meant that he would use the tube delivered pigment in its pure unmixed form. Maybe it is just my poor memory and that is how I remember it. Anyway, below is an image of the bladder from the collection of the V & A. It dates from ca. 1800-30. Hope you think it is as interesting as I do.

   ©Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Just because I had intended to emphasize the importance of Prussian blue to Japanese woodblock print making I thought I should give you a pre-taste of what is to come. An amuse bouche, as the French might say or some of those chefs in snooty restaurants. So, without further ado, I give you a great triptych  by Keisai Eisen (渓斉英泉: 1790-1848). It comes from the collection of the British Museum and dates from ca. 1830.

   © Trustees of the British Museum

I know what you are thinking: Who is this putz and why hasn’t he posted an image of Hokusai’s Great Wave yet? Well, here it is, but first… Printed in ca. 1830-33 this print made liberal use of the newly imported rare and previously expensive Prussian blue. However, this Prussian blue was produced much more cheaply in China and made available in Japan – changing the art world there forever. Unlike the earlier blues, indigo and a dye made from the dayflower,  used by print makers this new pigment did not fade dramatically.

*Note: Most scholars still believe that Prussian blue was both expensive and dear – whether it was made in China or Europe.

This  image is as iconic as they come. It ranks right up there with Leonardo’s Mona Lisa, Michaelangelo’s David and Warhol’s Brillo Box – heaven forgive me. The Great Wave comes from the series Thirty-six Views of Mt. Fuji, “…the first to exist exclusively of large-format prints of landscapes.” [This quote comes from a curatorial comment at the British Museum web site.] The formal title of this particular print is Kanagawa-oki nami-ura (神奈川沖浪裏) or ‘Under the Wave, off Kanagawa’.

Since each color in a Japanese woodblock print requires a separate block one can tell that only three blocks were used for printing the water.

   © Trustees of the British Museum

In 1857-8 Hiroshige (広重: 1797-1858) produced his last print series – 100 Views of Edo. The Dyer’s Quarter in Kanda (神田紺屋町) shows stips of cloth hanging from drying rods. The blue of these strips would have been traditionally dyed with indigo, but the publisher here chose to use Prussian blue to make his point. It is somewhat ironic considering the European fabrics shown above dyed with that same pigment. The example shown below is from the Brooklyn Museum. Other printings of this image are not so liberal in their use of blue as this one seems to be.

Blue PrussiansorWhen exactly did they legalize same-sex marriages in Massachusetts? There is a very strange 1860 woodblock print by Yoshitora in the collection at the Met. They refer to it as “A Prussian Couple” (shown below).  Look at it carefully. The figure in the long flowing clothes has a mustache. Surely the figure wearing a dress is meant to play the role of a woman.

Of course, there could be a logical explanation. Maybe Yoshitora couldn’t find a female model. Or… Besides, I have a vague memory of seeing one of these prints but the figure didn’t have hair on its upper lip. Maybe not. This print reminded me of a passage I read in The Proud Tower by Barbara Tuchman year’s ago when the Kaiser was attending a ball in which his overweight head of the military, Count Hülsen-Haeseler, dropped dead while dressed as a ballerina, pink tutu and all. He was said to have “danced beautifully”. “Rigor mortis having set in by the time the doctors came, the General’s body could only with the greatest difficulty be divested of its ballet costume and restored to the propriety of military uniform. It had not been a happy year for the Kaiser…” I guess cross-dressing and gender-confusion were nothing new to the Prussians.

Also, there is the case of Winslow Homer who according to Henry Adams, a modern Adams descendant, paid young men and boys to pose as women in dresses  in many of his paintings and watercolors.

Now, just so you will understand me, I am not saying that the women seen above in the Homer watercolor are boys posing as women, but… maybe…

I knew I had seen another version somewhere – There is a print in the collection of Harvard University, also by Yoshitora, where the woman is definitely a woman. Of course, that doesn’t explain the strange, even bizarre, print shown above, but at least this one is a little more conventional. It, too, dates from 1860.

    © Harvard University

The earliest reference to Prussian blue in Japan? I don’t know when the earliest reference was but it might just be the one by Hiraga Gennai (平賀源内: 1728-1780). He mentioned it in his magnum opus, Butsurui hinshitsu (物類品隲)  or ‘Classification of Various Material’ published in 1763. In an exhibition in Edo in 1762 he wrote:

Berein brau [Berlijns blauw]. The Red-Haired [Hollanders] brought this to Japan. Similar to hensei
[Chinese blue],  but lighter in substance , yet deeper and brighter in colour than hensei.

In my personal collection I have an illustrated book of Dutch flora that features several thousand 
varieties, each represented true to life in shape and colour. The blue pigment used in these illustrations
appears to be Prussian blue. The colour is truly exquisite

Hinterglasmalerei or Reverse Glass Painting (in China and Japan) – Hinterglasmalerei is a German term I like to use every chance I get. Of course, I never get to use it, but what the heck. Now I can because I found a reference I can quote and here it is – the quote is from Modern Asian Art by John Clark:

Briefly, the circulation of glass painting in Asia reached a new stage in the seventeenth century when 
such works were presented by the Dutch to the shogun… Chinese glass paintings were certainly being
produced before 1745 when they were known to have been collected in France, and Sasaki has con-
clusively established that Dutch Prussian blue, used extensively in glass painting was known in Japan
by 1763. The imported European pigment was probably completely replaced after 1828 by purchases
almost exclusively from Guangzho (Canton) where it was by this time manufactured. It is also around the
1820s that the pigment was used in the colouring of ukiyo-e prints. 

Below is a reverse painting on glass from China from the collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum. It dates from 1760-80. I am not saying that the blue in this piece is from Prussian blue, but I am not saying it isn’t. I just don’t know, but who cares.

   ©Victoria and Albert Museum, London


For those of you who would like to see more information about Japanese art and culture please visit my other web site at

For a ton more information – scattered and diverse – visit my index/glossary pages. You will find links to numerous individual pages about half way down the home page. Just click on any of them and then brace yourself. Enjoy the ride! Thanks!

1 Comment »

  1. WOW..This BLUE my mind. I must set about re-reading this in smaller chunks. Love it!

    Comment by philip wassmer — August 27, 2012 @ 1:04 pm | Reply

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