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A brief history of ultramarine


At the Paris Review, novelist (and amateur painter) Ravi Mangla reflects on the history of ultramarine, which he describes as “the superlative blue, the end-all blue, the blue to which all other hues quietly aspire.” Ultramarine was used in legendary paintings by the likes of Michelangelo and Vermeer, and was once extremely expensive and difficult to obtain. Today, however, synthetic ultramarine paint is widely and cheaply available:

Derived from the lapis lazuli stone, the pigment was considered more precious than gold. For centuries, the lone source of ultramarine was an arid strip of mountains in northern Afghanistan. The process of extraction involved grinding the stone into a fine powder, infusing the deposits with melted wax, oils, and pine resin, and then kneading the product in a dilute lye solution. Because of its prohibitive costs, the color was traditionally restricted to the raiment of Christ or the Virgin Mary. European painters depended on wealthy patrons to underwrite their purchase. Less scrupulous craftsmen were known to swap ultramarine for smalt or indigo and pocket the difference; if they were caught, the swindle left their reputation in ruin…

As a recreational painter, I feel undeserving of the ministrations of ultramarine. The color, like a truffle in the kitchen, is not an appropriate ingredient for dabblers and dilettantes. A tube of synthetic ultramarine paint is no more costly than a cerulean or cobalt, yet it still cuts an imposing figure. To apply it crudely seems a slight against the past. Many artists far more gifted than myself would have gladly given their left ear for a single ounce of the pigment. I wonder what Titian or Veronese would make of the paintings of Clyfford Still or Yves Klein, with ultramarine applied by the canful. Their hearts might stop calculating the cost.

Image: Vermeer, Girl with a Pearl Earring, ca. 1665. Via Paris Review.