Ultramarine blue - a journey beyond the sea

Today, we embark on a captivating journey through time to explore the fascinating story of ultramarine blue, widely regarded as one of the most valuable colours in history.

Ultramarine blue, derived from the gemstone lapis lazuli, has left an indelible mark on the world of art. The name itself, derived from Latin, signifies its origin "beyond the sea." This mesmerising pigment, with its deep and vibrant hue, has been prized for centuries for its rarity and intensity.

During the Renaissance, ultramarine blue captured the imagination of renowned artists like Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, and Raphael. However, acquiring this treasured pigment was no simple task. The lapis lazuli stone, primarily found in the mines of Afghanistan, had to undergo an intricate process of grinding and separation to extract the coveted blue pigment. This labor-intensive method, coupled with the limited availability of the gemstone, rendered ultramarine blue an exclusive and exorbitantly priced commodity, reserved for the elite, including royalty and the Church.

Its exceptional colour stability and resistance to fading made ultramarine blue even more desirable. Artists cherished this pigment for its ability to retain its brilliance and vibrancy over time, making it the ideal choice for depicting the divine robes of the Virgin Mary in religious paintings. 

An example of ultramarine's colour stability is Willem van Aelst's 1600s Dutch floral paintings. The artist originally mixed ultramarine blue with yellow paint to create vibrant greens. The yellow pigments have now faded leaving only the rich blue ultramarine, making the leaves appear blue.

Over the centuries, attempts were made to find alternative sources or develop synthetic versions of ultramarine blue. However, it was not until the 19th century that a successful synthetic variation, known as French ultramarine, was created. This breakthrough made the colour more accessible, gradually diminishing the demand for the natural pigment.

Despite the availability of synthetic alternatives, the allure and historical significance of the original lapis lazuli-derived ultramarine blue persist. Artists today continue to utilise this captivating colour, paying homage to its legacy. Its profound impact on the art world remains, as it continues to captivate art enthusiasts and historians alike.

And so, we conclude our voyage through the tale of ultramarine blue, an exquisite hue that transcends time and embodies the spirit of artistic expression.

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