The Competition to Make Artificial Ultramarine Blue
Updated: Aug 7
Ecole Polytechnique vs. The University of Tubingen.
Scholastic rivalries have interesting histories. Each year both school athletic teams meet to beat the tar out of each other in an annual football game. This sporting event is preceded by a student from one school stealing something of historic or sentimental value from another. These cyclical crimes of larceny can be fairly benign to exceedingly complex. Most go very badly if live animals are involved.
In reality, this story is a fictitious rivalry between a French and German university but it was a very real competition between two scientists who came from universities that provided them with the knowledge, tools and the environment, to vie for an honor that would have significant consequence for the art world.
The challenge in the early 19th century was to create an artificial way of synthesizing ultramarine blue. Genuine ultramarine blue has never been abundant. Artists throughout history have always used natural ultramarine sparingly. Blue colorants like azurite were used as an under paint to provide a blue background onto which true ultramarine would be applied. Since scarcity and price are related, it is easy to understand that this pigment would be zealously guarded and used judiciously. Its presence in a picture denoted wealth. The color was equated with the robes of the Virgin Mary and it was fitting that the expense is associated with this figure of religious devotion. It is no wonder that we see so few green pigment mixtures since it would have been considered wasteful to make a mixture of genuine ultramarine and a yellow colorant.
In the 19th century, the cost of ultramarine was ever increasing and shortages of the nearest acceptable substitute, azurite, fueled the need to find an artificial means of producing ultramarine pigment. The modern age of industrial processing played an important role in the effort to bring artificial ultramarine into being. Keen observers of manufacturing noted that the production of soda (Na2 O) in a glass factory resulted in materials that contained a blue-colored byproduct. As early as 1814 the noted chemist, Louis Nicolas Vauquelin identified the material from the soda kilns as being chemically similar to natural ultramarine. Had Vauquelin been eager to pursue a means of creating a viable process for manufacturing this synthetic ultramarine, he could have added this pigment to the chrome colors he helped devise several years earlier. This observation inspired the Societe pour l’Encouragement d’industrie to offer a prize of 6,000 francs (approximately $1,112 in a 2021 exchange rate calculation) for anyone who could duplicate the rich hue of ultramarine without the high cost. Surprisingly, it only took 4 years for the prize to be claimed.
It appears that two scientists were up to facing the challenge. Jean-Baptiste Guimet studied chemistry at the Ecole Polytechnique in Paris. He was no stranger to the world of pigments. Before and after his arrival at the Ecole Polytechnique some of the best minds in chemistry and pigment development taught there. Vauquelin was an instructor at the university only a few years before Guimet entered Ecole Polytechnique in 1813. Vauquelin's prized student, Louis Jaques Thenard who would later go on to produce cobalt blue, taught at the Ecole Polytechnique. No evidence indicates that Guimet was a student of Thenard, but they were both present at the school in the early 19th century. It might not be a coincidence that two major blue pigments were born from the same distinguished institution. After his education, Guimet entered Administration des Poudres et Salpetres in 1817. Eleven years later in 1828, he captured the process of making ultramarine using kaolin clay, feldspar, anhydrous sodium carbonate, sulfur and coal as reducing agents.
Christian Gottlob Gmelin who lived from 1792 to 1860 was a German chemist and professor of chemistry and pharmacy at the University of Tübingen. Little is known about him. Gmelin was just a month short of Guimet in publishing the method he used to obtain artificial ultramarine. This brief lag allowed Guimet to claim the prize. All was not lost for Professor Gmelin. His process for creating ultramarine was slightly different than the one devised by Guimet. It was employed in several factories in Germany and while not directly indicated, must have provided some sort of financial reward to Gmelin.
It is important to note that the prize stipulated that it would be awarded to the person who invented a cost-effective method of making a synthetic ultramarine. While artificial ultramarine mimics the chemical structure of genuine lapis lazuli, it was not stipulated that it had to mirror the structure of the original pigment. It just had to perform and appear in color to match genuine ultramarine and be inexpensive enough to produce on a large scale. Inexpensive, small batch production would not meet the criteria. Success was predicated on cheap mass production. Guimet managed to create artificial ultramarine for about 880 francs per kilo. Genuine lapis pigment was sold at the time for 6,000 to 9,000 francs per kilo. Recalling the prize amount awarded to Guimet at first glance seems significant, but it would only have purchased a single kilo of natural lapis lazuli in the early 19th century.
The ultimate dividend was the knowledge of production, not the prize that was awarded. Guimet went on to open up a factory in Fleurieux sur Saone. The factory was very successful and management of the facility was passed on to Guimet’s son Emile.
No indication was uncovered that an Ecole Polytechnique and University of Tubingen inter-school rivalry exists. Students don’t paint their bodies blue and shower the opposing university with clods of ultramarine pigment during some collegiate sporting event. Starting trouble between these two seats of higher learning after a 178-year hiatus might be ridiculous. However, it has great visual potential as the two schools employ ultramarine blue in a variety of exciting ways to ignite a battle for dominance between the two institutions.
The Syntax of Color
The Grammar of Color Essay
Volume 3, No. 5
Originally published, September 2007 - Re-edited on 8-7-2022