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The Colors of Our Dreams

By: Jesse Russell
April 1, 2019

rench historian Michel Pastoureau, whose Blue: The History of a Color has just been re-released to English-speaking audiences, is one of our age’s great librarians of civilization. On its surface, Blue is a dull exercise in scholarly record keeping—but in fact, it is an exhilarating and richly informing book on how the European peoples from the Iron Age until today have decorated themselves and their cultural artefacts with the color blue.  

Pastoureau argues that the color blue is both a naturally occurring phenomenon and a complex cultural construct which is “first and foremost a social phenomenon.” His impressive scholarly narrative does not fall prey to postmodernism’s worse excesses; Blue offers a coherent raison d’être behind Western history, no matter how that story is colored.

Blue was once little-known in the Western palette. Homer’s sea was “wine dark”; blue would not be used as water’s color until the seventeenth century. It has evolved from its original association with warmth, heat, barbarism, and the creatures of the underworld, to its current association with calm, peace, and reverie. Like the unruly green, the Romans associated blue with the savage Celtae and Germani, who used the woad herb’s rich leaves for their blue pigments. These northern barbarians also painted themselves blue before war and religious rituals. The ancient Germans, according to Ovid, even dyed their whitening hair blue.

The Romans, in contrast, preferred the color red—the Latin word, “coloratus” was synonymous with that for red, ruber. The Romans and Greeks did import lapis lazuli, the exquisite blue rock, from exotic locals such as China, Iran, and Afghanistan. But neither used the barbaric blue for important figures or images, saving it for the backgrounds for white and red figures. Even the Greek words for blue, like the names of colors in the Bible, largely were meant to evoke certain states or feelings as opposed to exact visual colors. Blue, like green, was the color of death and barbarism. The nobler colors—white, red, and black—were preferred.

The barbaric tribes that ushered in the Dark Ages after Rome’s fall brought their love of woad-extracted blue into the newly formed Germanic kingdoms. But their ascendant Christian kings adopted Roman trappings: blue gave way to red, at least among the upper class, who delegated blue (along with vegetable consumption) to the peasantry. In its first thousand years, the Catholic Church also largely ignored blue, adopting white, a symbol of purity, holiness, and Christ’s resurrection, as the color for liturgical worship and dress.

In late antiquity and the early medieval period blue and green were associated with Satan and his demonic cohort. This connotation was drawn from blue’s classical association with the underworld, death, and barbarism. By the twelfth century, blue, when shown alongside red, gained a luminous, purple tinge and was detached from the diabolical and barbaric green. Artisans employed by the mysterious twelfth century Abbot Suger of St. Dennis Abbey developed what would become known as “St. Denis Blue.” Its beauty inspired Christians to adopt it as fitting for heaven, nobility, and the Virgin Mary, who had traditionally been shown in dark clothes highlighting her suffering. Innumerable aesthetic treasures, such as Lorenzo di Credi’s late fifteenth century piece The Annunciation, helped transition blue from the color of the underworld and the barbaric north to that of joy, peace, and love.

In Middle Ages St. Louis, King of France, inaugurated the kingly blue robe, and Capetian kings even adopted as a royal standard the gold fleur-de-lis on a blue background. Following in the wake of French royal prestige and ascendency, other monarchs adopted the same. The Italians and Germans nobility remained enamored with Roman red, but soon blue became immensely fashionable in their countries’ popular dress and art.

Pastoureau suggests that blue’s popularity in the Middle Ages ushered in the tripartite blue-white-red color scheme on which so much of European, African, and Asian culture was built. For Pastoureau, color schemes are the essential building blocks of our conceptualization of the world. White and black, representative of good versus evil, is the most basic dichotomy. The red-white-black scheme is the foundation of such primeval human myths as Little Red Riding Hood, in which a girl dressed in red carries a bit of white butter to her grandmother, who is, unbeknownst to her, a wolf dressed in black. The introduction of blue, yellow, and other colors in the Western palate reflected not simply a broadening of the easel, but a broadening of consciousness, which entertained increasingly new ideas.  

In late medieval and early Renaissance periods, black edged back into the Western palette, becoming the color of aristocracy and formality. It remains the choice for tuxedoes, funeral dress, and evening wear to this day. Both black and blue were popular during the Protestant Reformation, whose adherents generally shunned bright colors—Martin Luther himself had a deep and abiding hatred for red, the symbol of Roman decadence. Eager to avoid association with gaudy papists, only children were allowed to wear white and bright clothing in many Protestant households. But blue seemed to pass the Calvinist and Lutheran muster—perhaps, Pastoureau suggests, because it was not a Catholic liturgical color. The Catholic response was a deluge of colors during the Counter Reformation. It is easy to pick the brightly colored Catholics from the more soberly garbed Protestants from sixteenth and early seventeenth century paintings.

Vibrant color made a triumphant return in the 1640s with indigo’s introduction into Europe from the New World. Its cultivation created a brighter and more vivid blue that became extremely popular among seventeenth and eighteenth century women. Blue remained an aristocratic choice after the creation of Prussian blue in 1707, but it was unable to shed entirely its early associations with the underworld and Northern Europe’s dark forests. By the mid-nineteenth century, blue became a Romantic symbol of melancholy. Among those guilty of luring the moody young to dress in blue was Wolfgang von Goethe who, in The Sorrows of Young Werther, depicted his title character in a blue coat. This, coupled with Werther’s untimely death, inspired a craze for blue coats and a mania for suicide among melancholy European youth. Werther’s blue jacket was matched by the blue flower in Novalis’s unfinished posthumous piece Heinrich von Ofterdingen, which narrates the tale of a medieval troubadour who seeks out the flower as a symbol of the authentic life of beauty and art. Young, melancholic Frenchmen were doubly encouraged in their swooning by the closeness shared by the French word for blue flower, “ancolie,” and the ending of “mélancholie.”

From Romanticism’s murky forest a host of verbal expressions bloomed, linking blue with odd, melancholic reverie. Fairy tales were known as “blue tales”; to be terribly drunk in German became known as “being blue” or “Blau sein”; and the “blue devils,” from which we get the great American expression (and musical genre) “the blues,” meant to be afflicted with a lingering sadness.

But blue in this period was not only the color of dreamy poets and lovers, it was also the color of the French revolutionary uniform, a fact of which Blue takes special note. Pastoureau is unapologetically French and, like most French intellectuals, when talking about the West or even world history, ends up talking mostly about France.

Blue was the color par excellence of late Middle Ages France, but it had taken a back seat to royal white during the Bourbon era. But blue was the Paris militia’s color during the Revolution, and thus became the color of France’s army in 1792, an association that remained throughout the bloody nineteenth century. During the Napoleonic Wars the indigo/woad rivalry was revived, as blockading English ships prevented indigo from reaching France. In response,  Napoleon ordered woad production to be resurrected for his troops’ uniforms. After the monarchy’s restoration Charles X replaced the blue pants of French troops with red ones in order to end excessive reliance on foreign indigo. These red pants became a symbol of the French army and prompted a war minister to declare in 1911: “The red pants, c’est la France.” After costing the lives of tens of thousands of overexposed Frenchmen during the first year of World War I, however, form gave way to function and French soldiers were given more camouflaged “horizon blue” uniforms. The red pants went the way of Napoleonic battle formations. Today, France’s soccer team is called “Les Blues,” as the French have traded combat on the battlefield for the dance of combat in arena sports.

Despite morphing into France’s color of conservative republicanism, blue’s wild and barbaric roots sustained its association with protest and rebellion. Blue began to replace somber, Victorian black by the Progressive Era. The navy blazer, a sign of conservativism and preppy formality in the twentieth century, was once a mark of the avant garde Westerner, adorned in what became known as “sportswear.” Aspiring radicals wore blue jeans, made from denim dyed with indigo, but ultimately derived by Levi Strauss from the pants made from tent canvas for California prospectors. Eventually, jeans became leisurewear for Americans from the East Coast who wanted to dress like the cowboys of the increasingly tame “wild west.” As the tides of early twentieth-century fashionable rebellion swelled, blue jeans were given the stamp of haute couture in a famous 1935 edition of Vogue, and, after World War II, were a symbol of rebellion and nonconformity—especially in newly liberated Europe. But in the West, jeans eventually became blasé (but comfortable) everyday wear when everyone—even conservative squares—started wearing them. This did not stop blue jeans from becoming symbols of rebellion in Communist countries during the heady days of glasnost and perestroika, and later in the Muslim world a symbol of youthful rebellion.

Our morose, often bittersweet world is haunted by the same melancholy “blue devils” as the Romantic period, and is characterized by bitter conflicts between red and blue state culture. But blue has also become the color of tranquility, calm, and the hope of peace. As the color of the United Nations flag, blue is the aspirational color of the world order born from World War II’s sooty ashes. It is also the color of the European Union’s flag, which, like the U.N., was birthed from the noble hope for a unified and peaceful world.

Blue remains the favorite color of Westerners, who most prefer to be dressed in navy (once a symbol of rebellion, now a symbol of conservativism and boating club seriousness). Color may change its meaning and its symbolic association, but the underlying structure of reality built (and then painted) by a Divine Creator remains a firm constant throughout time and space—the protests of postmodern blue devils notwithstanding.