Ultramarine is a pigment that for hundreds of years had a very special status among artists’ materials. Traditionally ground from the semi-precious stone lapis lazuli, it can produce the most intense, deep, cool shades of blue. It also has a particular translucency that gives paintings a brilliance that no other pigment can provide, and, crucially, it is a stable, which means that it does not deteriorate or fade easily. This exotic pigment has been used by European artists since the thirteenth century and for a long time was the most extensive and desirable blue.
Frequently referred to as ‘the royal pigment’ or ‘the diamond of pigments’, its name reflects its geographical remoteness: Ultramarine literally means ‘from across the sea’, alluding to the distant place where it was sourced from the middle ages until well into the nineteenth century: the Sar-e-Sang mines in the mountainous terrain of the Badakshan region of modern day Afghanistan. Although some older sources sometimes refer to the place where the pigment was sold (‘Ultramarine of Venice’), European artists, dealers, patrons and art commissioners would have been well aware of the long overland journey it had made, some of it following the Silk Route. But it was not just the geography that made it special: its production was also laborious and difficult.
Many writers and artists commented on its beauty and exquisiteness. In one of the earliest paintings manuals ever published, the Italian Cennino Cennini describes Ultramarine in the fifteenth century as “illustrious, beautiful, and most perfect, beyond all other colours; one could not say anything about it, or do anything with it, that its quality would not surpass”. Along with gold and vermilion, Ultramarine formed a trio of what were considered the purest colours in Medieval and Renaissance European art. Because Venice was for centuries the gateway to the East, Italian artists had the easiest access to the pigment, and some of the best examples of the early use of Ultramarine can be found in Italian art.
A cheaper mineral-based blue, Azurite, was available in large quantities in Germany and would have come to Italy via the Alps. It was sometimes called German Blue, or indeed citramarino, meaning ‘from this side of the sea’. In order to save money, Ultramarine was sometimes mixed with Azurite, or the cheaper pigment was used as an undercoat and the much more precious and vibrant Ultramarine applied in a thin final layer.
The remote origin, rarity and brilliance of Ultramarine were reflected in its price, which used to be higher than that of gold, but also in the way it was used and in what an artist chose to depict with it. Patrons often gave clear instructions to artists as to exactly how much Ultramarine should be used in a painting, and where exactly it should be applied. It might also occasionally have served as currency in Renaissance Venice. A pigment of such high value became naturally associated with the most revered subjects, and achieved an almost divine status. It is not surprising that Ultramarine was used predominantly in Christian art, and within this genre specifically for the robes of the Virgin Mary, Christ, or particular saints.
We also see Ultramarine in the star-spangled skies that symbolise the Christian Heaven, particularly in French medieval painting, and there usually combined with gold leaf. This is especially poignant, since raw lapis lazuli contains specs of fools’ gold and has the appearance of a starry night sky.
The beauty of the pigment was not lost on non-religious art. In the sixteenth century Titian revelled in it and used it to depict the sumptuous sky in , (on display in the National Gallery, London), but chose a greenish Azurite for the less dramatic sea below.
In the seventeenth century Vermeer, the Dutch master of light and shade, used Ultramarine subtly but widely, mixing it only with white and some black to create the cloak of the Woman Reading a Letter, and, most famously, in the turban worn by the Girl with Pearl Earring. Vermeer was clearly struck by the luminescent quality of the pigment.
In the early eighteenth century a powerful synthetic blue was developed in Germany, commonly known as Prussian Blue, but the real threat to natural Ultramarine emerged in the nineteenth century, which not only saw the invention of another beautiful synthetic blue, Cobalt, but also an artificial imitation of Ultramarine, invented by the French colourman Jean-Baptiste Guimet in 1828. This French Ultramarine could be produced easily and in large quantities and was therefore much cheaper than the natural pigment sourced in remote mountainous regions of Asia.
Text by Alexandra Loske. First published in AGI Magazine, November 2012. Copyright Alexandra Loske.