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  • Blue: The History of a Color
  • Sheila ffolliott
Blue: The History of a Color. By Michel Pastoureau (Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2001 [originally Bleu: Histoire d’une couleur. Paris, 2000]. 216 pages).

Michel Pastoureau, author of previous works on the symbolism and social function of color, has written an engaging history of blue in the West from the [End Page 266] Neolithic to the 20th century. To do so he investigates the color as a named and historically situated category, a “social” rather than a natural or universal phenomenon. In four chapters focusing on antiquity, the Middle Ages, the early modern, and the modern era, respectively, he argues that blue was unimportant until the late Middle Ages but has gone on to “triumph” in the 20th century.

His introduction sets out the three major obstacles confronting the potential historian of color. First, Pastoureau appropriately complicates our reactions to color evidence from the past (significantly pigments, which furnish the hue, change appearance over time). Second, he addresses the difficulty in establishing a suitable methodology, because of the range of disciplines and approaches the scholar must consider. Finally, he calls attention to the epistemological problem produced by projecting our own ideas about color onto the past. Pastoureau’s stated aim is “to examine all kinds of objects in order to consider the different facets of the history of color and to show how far beyond the artistic sphere this history relates...” as, he contends, histories of color in painting have failed to do. (p. 9) Nevertheless, he uses visual documents—including paintings—as evidence, taking from an examination of many “the internal structural analysis with which any study of an image or colored object should begin.” (p. 9) The author seeks explanations via the social constructions of the meanings of color and argues that the contributions of “the artist, the intellectual, human biology, and nature are irrelevant.” (p. 10) Therefore, in addition to visual analysis, he examines a range of materials, including the production and regulation of dyestuffs and clothing, the development of pigments from precious stones, as well as the often-imprecise language of color categorization and its application (a perennial problem in any study of taxonomy).

Thus, in the first chapter, rather than pondering whether ancient man could “see” blue (the Greeks and Romans did not, apparently, name or esteem it), Pastoureau asks why this color played “such a feeble social and symbolic role” until the 12th century. (p. 14) He presents a fascinating array of examples of ethnocentric designations, e.g. the Romans associated blue with the Barbarians. In support of his argument that blue played a subservient role in ancient cultures, Pastoureau further notes how in Egypt and Rome it served primarily as “background” and in the depiction of landscapes.

Chapter 2 covers revisions to the color hierarchy—occurring in the 11th and 12th centuries—that signal the rise of blue: it becomes standard for the Virgin’s robe and appears in elite fashion (the birth of “royal” blue) and in heraldry; blue, however, does not appear in church vestments. To provide a fuller context, Pastoureau also engages with discourse on color in general: theologians’ discussions of color, both pro, Abbot Suger’s writings about color’s symbolic role, as divine light, and con, Bernard of Clairvaux’s argument that color is matter and therefore base. Technology contributes here as well, for glaziers, enamellers, and illuminators could now produce highly saturated blues. The blue hues, beginning to appear in profusion in manuscripts or large-scale narratives, demonstrate a preferred aesthetic and probably illustrate social practices in the actual colors of clothing or wall hangings. In images, moreover, blue signaled another social phenomenon: because the pigment was expensive, it indicated the wealth of the patron as well as the importance of the subject.

The next chapter shifts focus to define the “morality” of color, investigating [End Page 267] practices like sumptuary legislation, intended to control wearing apparel and facilitate easy distinction of social classes in public places. Here Pastoureau traces how black, worn by kings, came to indicate seriousness of purpose. Associating blue with black, he contends, the Reformation embraced these colors, and embarked on...

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