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In Search of the Perfect Blue

The color blue has had a long history in the Western world. The ever-changing role of blue has been used in bookbinding and the book arts to color manuscripts, maps, and scientific illustrations. Colorants used in inks, paints, and dyes have come from a variety of natural sources, including clays, gems, plants, and insects. Blue pigments were first made from imported minerals from Central Asia, eventually shifting to local resources within Europe. The exhibition, Nature of the Book, explores the use of natural materials in bookmaking during the hand-press period (1450-1850), touching on how this rare pigment was initially reserved for religious works, later changing focus to favor European royalty and nobility. As blue’s color gained popularity for a wider audience by the end of the 18th century, new shades and formulas were created; in fact, the first synthetic pigment was a blue that offered greater access to a more affordable version.

The earliest and rarest blue was obtained from the precious stone lapis lazuli, also known as lazurite. The mineral, primarily mined in Afghanistan, was for centuries shipped a great distance into Europe through Venice. It was ground to a powder and laboriously processed to create a vibrant pigment. Because it was so costly, artists chose to use it sparingly.  The calcite content in lazurite, a silicate mineral, was positively identified by x-ray fluorescence in a blue paint sample on parchment in a 15th-century illuminated philosophical work from the Dibner Library of the History of Science and Technology. This reveals that the pigment was only used as a top coat and provides evidence of its value.  Europeans called this color Ultramarine because of its brilliant resemblance to the sea and, as such, the color remained a favorite and was most extensively used in hand-colored manuscripts through the 15th century.

Detail of capital initial on manuscript.
Detail. Boethius, On the Conservation of Philosophy, 15th century.

Azurite, a blue copper ore, was a less expensive alternative to rare lapis lazuli. Though available by trade from sources as far as Asia, azurite was popularly used in European illustrations into the 17th century owing to the convenience of some local regional mining.  Ultramarine and azurite blue were used to beautify and convey prestige or value in books; the symbolism of blue represented the mystical powers of sky and water.  Combined with the relative expense to achieve this, the use of blue was often reserved for those of high-ranking status, as featured in a hand-colored 1604 Spanish petition for nobility. The blue pigment used in the illuminations has been positively identified as azurite.  The bound manuscript is displayed alongside a specimen collected from Germany and loaned from the Department of Mineralogy in the National Museum of Natural History.

Detail. Petition for noble status (manuscript), Spain, 1604.


Azurite with malachite and siderite, Germany. NMNH B7994, National Museum of Natural History. Gift of Carl Bosch.

As subject matter expanded with the development of printing, books covered a multitude of topics by the 18th century. The desire to use blue pigments for illustration grew with the rapid pace of book production. By 1724 the first modern artificially produced pigment that offered a more economical option, Prussian Blue, was developed for use. Global exploration during that period stimulated the production of many scientific works that required precise coloring for illustrations of the natural world for an insatiable academic audience. Illustrations from the first fully illustrated and comprehensive study of the flora and fauna of North America were drawn, and many of them etched, by author and naturalist Mark Catesby.  Some illustrations in Catesby’s work are hand-colored using Prussian blue – its iron content recently identified through pigment analysis by conservation scientists at the Smithsonian Museum Conservation Institute – to enhance the colors of the Carolina Parakeet and the Painted Finch, birds not yet known to Europeans. Accurate descriptive coloring from that period has continued importance with current research as some species within the natural world are now extinct.

Visitors are encouraged to visit the books and artifacts representing this story of blue as well as other specimens and collections illustrating the varied sources of dyes, pigments, and inks featured in the Nature of the Book exhibition, located on the first floor of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History.

Carolina Parakeet (Conuropsis carolinensis). Mark Catesby, The natural history of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands. London, 1729-1747.
Detail. Painted Finch (painted bunting, Passerina ciris). Mark Catesby, The natural history of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands. London, 1729-1747.


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