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  • Writer's pictureMichael Skalka

Ultramarine Blue - A Historical Reassessment?

Summary: A small portion of an article in the New York Times provides an abundance of food for thought regarding the art materials Johannes Vermeer selected for his paintings. Are definitive answers available that address why Vermeer used Ultramarine Blue and what elements he depicted in his paintings meant to his patrons and us as modern viewers of his work?


On May 25, 2023, an article in the New York Times entitled “Seeing Beyond the Beauty of a Vermeer,” caught my attention. The article relates to the largest number of paintings assembled in an exhibition of Verneer’s artwork that is being held at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. The exhibit displays 28 works out of the approximately 35 paintings known to be by Vermeer. The show contains 7 more paintings than the previous exhibition of Vermeer’s work that was featured in “Johannes Vermeer” at the National Gallery of Art in Washington in 1995-1996. In the first section of the article, the author of the New York Times article, Teju Cole explores the beauty of the application of paint and the techniques employed by Vermeer.


The second part of the article focuses on the title of the piece that Cole wishes to examine. “Seeing Beyond the Beauty,” delves into the socio-cultural history of the Netherlands during the 17th century. The article chronicles the sordid activities related to the Dutch East India Company and their impact on the subject matter and physical objects that Vermeer depicted in his paintings. Did Vermeer know the source of his art materials and were his choices of the elements depicted in his paintings have underlying meaning or were they chosen because they provided aesthetic qualities?

While this is not a review of the article by Cole, the paragraph that caught my attention involves the use of Ultramarine Blue in Vermeer’s painting, “Woman in Blue Reading a Letter.” In my opinion, Cole’s comments on this paint color illustrate a common problem of using art materials to either realign or rewrite history. Cole takes some very well-known attributes regarding Ultramarine Blue and retools them to fit his narrative.


Artists and art historians all agree that natural Ultramarine Blue was and continues to be a rare, expensive pigment when it was derived from mined sources. (That still is the case today regarding natural ultramarine.) The rarity and expense are the principal reasons that motivated France in 1824, via the Societé d'Encouragement, to offer a prize of six thousand francs to anyone who could create an artificial blue that matched the hue and working properties of natural ultramarine.


The Times article states that Ultramarine Blue was usually reserved for the clothing depicted in paintings of the Virgin Mary. This historical fact is indisputable. Pigment analysis provides verification of this claim. Where the article becomes highly speculative is the statement that “Possibly the use of such an expensive pigment allowed Vermeer to attach greater prestige and a higher price to his paintings. Possibly he liked its association with paintings from earlier eras in which it was used to paint the blue of the Virgin Mary’s robe.” In my opinion, Cole should have cited Vermeer’s use of Ultramarine Blue in a reference derived from primary source material. When it comes to proving a critical point, the use of the words “possibly” and “may have,” do not provide concrete evidence and is theoretical at best.


A somewhat speculative but more convincing argument about Vermeer’s use of Ultramarine Blue could be made regarding “Woman in Blue Reading a Letter.” During Vermeer’s lifetime, he would have three choices of blue pigment. One is Ultramarine Blue and the other two are Azurite, basic carbonate of copper, as well as Indigo, a plant-based dye that would have been processed to adhere to a substrate to transform the dye into a pigment that could be incorporated into a drying oil.


Indigo has been found in Vermeer’s painting “Girl with a Pearl Earring, so it could have possibly been used in the underpainting layer of the garment of the woman reading.

Azurite is unstable and darkens to a black or green state. Since this color change was well known, if an artist like Vermeer wished to compose a painting with a figurative subject draped in blue clothing, taking a risk of having the main subject in the painting, a woman dressed in a blue garment, transforming into a dull green or black color might have come back to tarnish Vermeer’s reputation. But again, Azurite could have been employed in the underlayer of the painting with Ultramarine applied on top as the visible layer of blue color.


I admit, the layering hypotheses are speculative. I cannot find literature on pigment analysis performed on the painting “Woman in Blue Reading a Letter.” If Azurite or Indigo was used as an underpainting layer, it may or may not be published.


Regarding the use of Azurite, the pigment’s well-known color change problem poses some interesting questions. Many factors exist that determine the time required for azurite to change color. Did Vermeer know the risk of using Azurite? Did he select Ultramarine because it was more stable? Did his clients appreciate the use of a precious color like Ultramarine Blue and were aware of the changing nature of Azurite?


The argument of the expense of the pigment is buffered by the fact that the painting in question, “Woman in Blue Reading a Letter,” illustrated and discussed in Cole’s essay measures 18 5/16 by 15 3/8 inches. The Ultramarine Blue areas take up a small portion of this small work of art. So, a limited quantity of Ultramarine would have been expended to complete the painting. In addition, Vermeer may have added chalk to the blue pigment just as he did in the painting “Girl with a Pearl Earring.” Analysis of several of Vermeer’s paintings indicates that he used Ultramarine Blue extravagantly, so it supports the use of this pigment in the woman reading a letter. As indicated, the blue pigment was so precious that most artists would never consider using it in any mixture.


At the end of the paragraph, Cole adds that Ultramarine Blue is likely to have been obtained by people working in deplorable working conditions. It is safe to say regarding careers involving mining in this period and for some time to come, that anything extracted from the earth was steeped in working conditions that were far from acceptable when compared to today’s health and safety standards in this industry.


The Cole article on Vermeer opens the door to a related avenue of discussion that has an impact on art materials sold today as well as those of the not-too-distant past. The history of manufacturing dry pigments is filled with cringe-worthy stories. Much was unknown about materials hazards but enough was understood that indicated the inherent risk associated with the manufacturing process. Over time, technology and awareness provided safer working conditions for employees involved in chemical manufacturing and later environmental protection laws sought to hold manufacturers responsible for curbing pollution.


Due to several factors, many pigments have been retired over time. We know that many pigments have disappeared from the marketplace because national regulations involving health and safety along with environmental concerns have stopped the production of some pigments. Manganese Blue is one of the victims. It is not that the pigment is incredibly toxic, the problem is that the byproducts of the manufacturing process result in toxic waste that is difficult and expensive to remedy.


Several pigments have become “extinct” due to being either horribly toxic or a new pigment, far safer, has eliminated the need for a more toxic one to continue selling. Natural Vermilion, Emerald Green, Realgar, and Orpiment are only a few examples of pigments we would not likely want to have on our palette. While we still see discussions online among artists about the romance of using pigments embraced by the Old Masters, we have so many safer substitutes that we do not need to worry that we are missing a hue from the past that carries an enormous risk factor with it.


Contemporary issues have come to light and have appeared in recent news releases. One of the ongoing issues is the United Nations Global Alliance to Eliminate Lead Paint. Halting the manufacture of all lead paint is viewed as a move to stop children from being exposed to lead in countries that still allow lead white paint to be made. Another more recent issue is the EU supporting the curtailment of the use of Titanium White pigment from being incorporated into food and medicinal products because of the suspicion of titanium dioxide being linked to cancer.


Artists have no control over the pigments manufactured that are made into art materials. If in the future, a pigment is eliminated because of the lack of sales or is a hazard to the environment, artists have no ability to lobby for or against the continuation of the production of a pigment.


We are unusual users. and by that, I mean that pigments slated to be banned are used in ways and in settings that have no relationship to the way art materials are used. Pigments that would be selected to color plastics or paint walls have a direct relationship with the potential for personal interaction and exposure that could be perceived as a threat. That is what health and safety experts study when determining that a material should not be sold to make products. For several years decades, artists can still purchase lead white for art usage. The ability to use lead white in paint is a privilege that does not exist in the commercial paint world in the United States.


Artists or the general public do not repaint the interior walls of their homes with art materials such as lead white. Artists don’t mass produce children’s toys using inorganic pigments like cadmium which could lead to toxic exposure. Even if pigments like lead, and other heavy metals are used in paintings, the artwork hangs safely, untouched on a wall, and is not pressed into service as a food platter or other utilitarian objects that risk human contact.


I hope we never come to the point where the materials in works of art become the target of articles that state that while the art is beautiful, the pigments used to create it and the process of painting is causing harm to our world.


Artists work with a host of chemicals, both pigments and solvents (for those who use hydrocarbon materials) that need to be treated with care and respect. Most artists are very responsible about handling their art materials responsibly. We must maintain vigilance about their use, practice good stewardship in the outdoor places where we paint, and maintain clean and safe studios, especially if our painting areas are incorporated into our household living space. We want to live in a world where art remains an important part of the human experience and not the foundation for articles in news outlets that turn artists into environmental outlaws.


The Syntax of Color

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