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17 february 2018

Michel Pastoureau's Blue is the first in his series of histories of colors. Sequels may not initially have been anticipated: Pastoureau gets to talk quite a bit in Blue about the history of colors in general, and thus of dyeing, painting, mosaic, and other crafts and artforms.

Blue is abundant in nature. The sky is blue much of the time; expanses of water, though they are often green or grey, can be naturally vivid blue. Yet blue is not a common organic color. There are almost no naturally blue foods, for instance. Garden blues are few. I live on a wooded lot; there are lots of browns and greens outside my window as I write this. Flowers and butterflies (in season) bring red, white, and yellow to the natural palette; birds carry black and grey. But blue is rare, represented mainly by jays and (in springtime) larkspur.

Early dyers, looking for organic sources of blue, were sometimes at a loss. And Pastoureau goes further. In classical antiquity, he says, blue was so elusive a color that many Western languages had no word for it. (He is at pains to point out that this doesn't mean they couldn't see blue.) Greeks and Romans alike lacked terms for blue, and it is underrepresented in their surviving art. The Romance languages had to borrow from Germanic or Arabic: bleu, azzurro.

As a result, the color blue lacked high status in Europe until a little less than a thousand years ago. Classical civilization associated blue with barbarians, especially Celts who supposedly painted themselves blue whenever they got the chance. Early Christians were somewhat chromophobic, and not till the Abbé Suger in the 12th century did a Christian builder endorse the color. Soon thereafter, however, blue became one of the most prized colors in stained glass. It became associated with chivalry and royalty, and with the Virgin Mary.

As you can see from this description, Pastoureau's Blue is Eurocentric, rarely venturing beyond the continent for its subject matter. Once that's stipulated, there's nothing wrong with it; it just means that Blue isn't a global history. One continent offers quite enough scope for a history of this color, despite its late appearance in the European palette.

And blue, in the modern West, has certainly become the dominant color note. Pastoureau argues that blue is the Protestant color par excellence (112, 169). The brain trust of the Reformation were a chromophobic bunch, preferring black to all other colors. When they began to unwind a little, they saw red as the color of Catholics, associated yellow with Jews, observed that white is hard to keep clean, and who wants to wear green anyway? The very paucity of historical associations for blue made it ideal for the conformist, staid rise of Protestants and their famous work ethic. Dark blue became the uniform of businessmen and soldiers; blue jeans became quintessential working clothes (and eventually, by the vagaries of fashion, the haute couture of the young and hip).

The sober craze for blue extends deep into the political realm. Here blue is frequently paired either with or against red, its cultural counterpart. Nearly every national flag contains red, blue, or both. And in the even more important realm of baseball uniforms, 24 of 30 major-league teams currently wear red, blue, or both. The Orioles and the Giants sport a deep orange color that can seem red against their secondary black, and the Rockies wear deep purple that is effectively blue with a tinge of red. Only the White Sox, A's, and Pirates hold out, in their black, silver, green, and gold.

Blue contains a lot of art history, but following the color into the palettes of all Western artists would take several additional volumes, so Pastoureau wisely limits his exploration. He takes a couple of pages to celebrate Vermeer, who deployed a conventional range of colors in exquisite assortments, his blues being central. (Contrast Rembrandt, who worked in shades of grey and earth tones, stressing the effects of light as Vermeer did, but in what can seem a relatively colorless way.)

Pastoureau notes that most Europeans and Americans will choose blue as their favorite color (123, 170). I remember a hilarious questionnaire that candidates in some open American Presidential election, maybe 1988, answered for some magazine. Favorite color? To a man, they replied "blue." Blue is never the wrong answer. I guess blue was my favorite color, growing up. For a long while now, though, I've answered "yellow" when the question comes up. People give me yellow things (like vintage San Diego Padres gear in mustard and chocolate), and I find yellow items easy to keep track of, especially since everyone else has blue things. I honestly find yellow to be a very happy color, though like blue itself (for complicated and arbitrary reasons), yellow is often associated with depression and anxiety. I don't think we need to agree on the nicest color.

Pastoureau, Michel. Blue: The history of a color. [Bleu: Histoire d'une couleur. 2000.] Translated by Markus I. Cruse. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001. BF 789 .C7P369