Rhapsody in Blue

Rhapsody in Blue

For centuries, the colour blue has been prized as rare, mysterious and melancholic in equal measure. From deep sapphires to vibrant ultramarines to sparkling aquamarine, the endless possibilities of blue have inspired artists and entranced jewelry makers. Here, David Ho explores the history and meaning of this most captivating of colours.
For centuries, the colour blue has been prized as rare, mysterious and melancholic in equal measure. From deep sapphires to vibrant ultramarines to sparkling aquamarine, the endless possibilities of blue have inspired artists and entranced jewelry makers. Here, David Ho explores the history and meaning of this most captivating of colours.
“In music, light blue is like a flute, dark blue like a cello, and when still darker, it becomes a wonderful double bass. The deepest and most serene form of blue may be compared to the deep notes of an organ.”
- Wassily Kandinsky

T he colour blue has, throughout history, evoked a range of feelings and alluded to myriad connotations, from the divine to the deepest mysteries of nature. Throughout history, the colour blue has come to convey different things: melancholy, royalty, freedom, serenity, divinity, and more. Artists such as Yves Klein, Helen Frankenthaler, Pablo Picasso, Louise Bourgeois, and Wassily Kandinsky have all used blue to great and different effects.

“There are many kinds of blue—all the same hue, yet with in-exhaustive permutations of appearance, effect, origin, and meaning,” art historian Stella Paul writes in the opening lines of the first chapter of Chromaphilia: The Story of Color in Art.

For Klein, blue was a vibrant representation of his spirituality and religious upbringing. One of Thomas Gainsborough’s most famous portraits, The Blue Boy, features a child in regal pose and dressed in sumptuous blue satin. Following the death of close friend Carles Casagemas in 1901, Picasso expressed his sorrow through monochromatic paintings in blue and blue-green hues. This three-year interval came to be known as his Blue Period, in which the master created haunting works such as The Old Guitarist, La Vie, and the Portrait of Suzanne Bloch.

Yet, blue did not always exist as a medium or even as a cultural concept. The 19th-century British Prime Minister William Gladstone famously observed that Homeric epics never once mentioned the colour blue. In fact, there are no specific words for what we now call “blue” in any of the ancient languages, according to Guy Deutscher, linguist and author of Through the Language Glass: How Words Colour Your World. The idea may seem far-fetched, since any child today knows the colour of the sky. But it is less so when you consider how very few things exist in nature that are purely blue. This rarity explains why we regard this otherworldly and magical hue with such reverence. It is typically associated with the extraordinary and the magnificent, such as the birds of paradise, tropical butterflies, and peacocks.

Sapphire blue colour was associated with the heavens. Myanmar has been producing sapphires for more than 1,000 years and the area has several important locations that produce sapphires, including the famous Mogok Stone Tract. Sapphires were discovered in Kashmir in the late 19th century, and they acquired legendary status owing to their unique colour and extreme rarity. Why sapphires from Kashmir and Myanmar are so highly prized is because the colour saturation of these stones have the highest concentration of blue possible, setting them apart from any other blue gem in the world.

“Sapphire is a truly celestial stone. Its blue, often compared to that of the sky, is said to have healing powers. Throughout the Orient, it is believed to protect against bad luck.”
- Michel Pastoureau, ‘Blue : the history of a color’, 1947

Blue stones have been highly regarded through the ages. We need only to think of the Egyptian pharaoh Tutankhamun’s funeral mask inlaid with lapis lazuli to imagine the sacred status of the bright blue gemstone. In fact, for many centuries, the cost of lapis rivalled the price of gold. This captivating hue can be found in various other stones but remains no less desired – among them, paraíba tourmalines, aquamarines, apatites, turquoise, and aquaprase, a blue variation of chalcedony. These blue gems have for millennia sparked the imagination with its connection with the mysterious divine shade, richly endowed with nuance and meaning.

Going even farther back to the beginnings of geological time, we find blue in diamonds, the rarest of all coloured diamonds. The earliest known blue diamond came from the Kollur mine in the Golconda, a region of India that produced the Idol’s Eye and the Hope Diamond, perhaps the most fabled gemstone on the planet. Blue diamond discoveries of any size are still sporadic and always astonishing occurrences. This week, Sotheby's sold the largest fancy blue diamond ever offered at auction for HK$451million. The De Beers Blue is an extraordinary natural wonder at 15.10 carats and was recently cut from a rough stone discovered at the Cullinan Mine in in South Africa in 2021, one of the very few sources in the world for extremely rare blue diamonds.

The rarity of blue in the natural world and the difficulty of making dyes of that hue mean that the ability to control or reproduce that colour would be a relatively late innovation. Artists would devise a method to make pigment from lapis lazuli. For centuries, this colour was difficult to source, and extremely precious. “Only the wealthy could afford this blue, and they used to make artists and artisans sign a contract for how much good blue they would get and where it would be used,” according to Janice Lindsay, a colour expert and designer.

It is said that Michelangelo’s painting The Entombment was left unfinished because he could not find the funds to purchase the ultramarine blue he desired.

The colour blue appears in different settings with different meanings throughout history. Paintings depicting the Virgin Mary cloaked in royal blue garments spurred the popularity of the colour in art and the colour choice was suggestive of the reverence given to the subject. In modern pop culture, screen writer and director David Lynch uses blue as a metaphor in the cult classic movie Blue Velvet while a range of artists from Madonna to Pink Floyd have referenced the colour in their music.

The Russian painter and art theorist Wassily Kandinsky famously had a rare condition called synaesthesia, in which he experienced colour in association with non-visual sensations, such as music. In other words, for Kandinsky each shade of blue had an exact sound. In his colour theory outlined in the treatise ‘Concerning the Spiritual in Art’ Kandinsky compared various colours with specific moods. Blue, he says, is connected to the divine.

“It beckons man into the infinite, arousing a longing for purity and the super sensuous. It is the colour of the heavens just as we imagine it, when we hear the word heaven,” Kandinsky writes.


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