Blue Thursday

So what is Prussian blue?

You can read a fairly technical description at Wikipedia or a slightly less daunting description at painting.about.com, but briefly it was a synthetic pigment first discovered by accident in Berlin in 1704 by the chemist and paintmaker Heinrich Diesbach and alchemist Johann Konrad Dippel; it was Dippel who was responsible for providing Diesbach with contaminated potash while he was trying to create a red pigment. Dippel, I guess, was probably trying to turn some unlikely substance into gold.

Previously, the only way to get a vivid blue was to use ground lapis lazuli, expensive and rare, which is one of the reasons the color blue has powerful religious symbolism, the color of the sky and of the Virgin Mary’s robes. Prussian blue quickly became the first, easily available commercial blue color, used in paint and fabric, the “greatest hit” color of the eighteenth century, and one of its first commercial uses was for the uniforms of the Prussian army.

It quickly caught on as a popular color for house interiors. The bright blue showed off elaborate plaster ceilings to great effect. This is the drawing room at Kenmore in Fredericksburg, VA, where George Washington’s sister Betty lived (and which reopens after restoration on March 1). This is Prussian blue mixed with yellow ochre, to give the “in your face” shade so popular at that time.

Here’s painting underway at Montpelier, VA, the home of James Madison, which reopened after major restoration last year. The original Prussian Blue, applied in 1775, lasted until 1844, when the last of the Madison line sold the house–the durability and resistance to staining or fading of the color was another reason for its popularity. I blogged about visiting Montpelier while it was under restoration in 2007 and I’m hoping to go back and see the finished product soon (and blog about it!).

These gorgeous, restored blue doors are from the Temple of Concord and Victory at Stowe House, UK. The building of the temple was started by Lord Cobham in the mid eighteenth century, with James Gibbs, architect of St-Martin-in-the-Fields and other famous buildings. In the great tradition of aristocrat dabblers, Cobham’s descendants messed with the design. Below, left, is Stowe, and the restored temple to the right.

For more about the color blue, read this wonderful book by Michel Pastoureau.

If you’re interested in historic interior design or restoration, visit adelphipaperhangings.com where you can look at before and after restoration pictures of early wallpapers. Wallpapers deserve their very own post, which I’ll probably do at some time.

Have you visited any historic sites recently, or any sites where restoration is underway? Or what places would you like to visit?

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13 years ago

I love Prussian Blue! I’m a big fan of all the blue-grey and green-grey hues.You know, those sea-on-a-stormy-day colors. I use a lot of cobalt blue in my watercolors, mostly for shadow, and I’m also a huge fan of Payne’s Grey, which is very blue.

But according to this article, color exists only in our brain’s perception of it:

The historical places I want to go are Chateau Chantilly, the Chantilly Stables and Museum of the Living Horse and also Rosa Bonheur’s chateau. Rosa Bonheur fascinates me.

Janet Mullany
13 years ago

really interesting article, Jane. I’ve heard that the concept of color perception explains the use of the image “wine-dark sea” in classical Greek writing.

Cara King
13 years ago

Really interesting info, Janet!


Amanda McCabe
13 years ago

Such pretty, pretty blues! 🙂 I would love to visit these houses one day soon.

13 years ago

I love Prussian blue, too, just like JG.

And I love historical sites, so I’d go just about anywhere. Right now, I think Hadrian’s Wall would be up near the top of the list.

Diane Gaston
13 years ago

You amaze me, Janet. This is such great information. We forget that making color was a developing science.
And you put me to shame! I live near enough to Fredericksburg and Montpelier is a day trip for me, but I’ve never visited either place.

Janegeorge, that article reminds me of a DEEP THOUGHT I had once: Perhaps what I see as blue isn’t at all what anyone else sees as blue. They might see red where I see blue, but we can never know because we can’t see color through somebody else’s brain.

See. Told you it was a DEEP THOUGHT

Amanda McCabe
13 years ago

“They might see red where I see blue, but we can never know because we can’t see color through somebody else’s brain.”

Like smell! Do other people smell “jasmine” or “vetivert” like I do? Why do some people love some smells which other people hate? Very Interesting.

Keira Soleore
13 years ago

About color, it is possible to scientifically pinpoint what the eye’s perceiving (within a margin of error), because the reds have a range of frequencies as do the blues and it’s possible to figure out what the nerves and centers in the brain are sensing/perceiving.

Smells? I have no idea. I’m convinced I was a dog in my previous life. My sense of smell is incredibly strong, and I’d rather sniff. Ahem.

Diane Gaston
13 years ago

Ah, Keira, but can you prove that my brain interprets that wavelength the exact same way. Maybe my brain sees a red wavelength as your blue.

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