BLUE - Color History
BLUE - Color History
Nicole Fricke

Piece: The Virgin in Prayer, 1640-1650
The National Gallery, London

Adjacent Piece (not pictured): IKB 49, 1960, Nationalgalerie, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Berlin

Ever since the Medieval era
, painters have depicted the Virgin Mary in a bright blue robe, choosing the color not for its religious symbolism, but rather for its hefty price tag. Mary’s iconic hue—called ultramarine blue—comes from lapis lazuli, a gemstone that for centuries could only be found in a single mountain range in Afghanistan. This precious material achieved global popularity, adorning Egyptian funerary portraits, Iranian Qur’ans, and later the headdress in Vermeer
’s Girl with a Pearl Earring (1665). For hundreds of years, the cost of lapis lazuli rivaled even the price of gold. In the 1950s, Yves Klein
collaborated with a Parisian paint supplier to invent a synthetic version of ultramarine blue, and this color became the French artist’s signature. Explaining the appeal of this historic hue, Klein said, “Blue has no dimensions. It is beyond dimensions.”