Dive into the colour blue, and find out what it has meant to artists over the centuries

  • Titian, Bacchus and Ariadne, 1520-3
    Titian, Bacchus and Ariadne, 1520-3

1520 Loving lapis lazuli

Next time you see any European medieval or Renaissance paintings of the Virgin Mary, look out for her bright blue, royal drapery. It’s likely been painted with the striking and expensive ultramarine pigment, which was often specified by patrons in the contract for a new commission.

Since the 13th century, ultramarine has been extracted from the semi-precious stone lapis lazuli, mined only in what is now north-eastern Afghanistan. To cut costs without compromising on vibrancy, some painters would use a base layer of a cheaper blue pigment such as azurite, which has a greenish tone but is more readily available, and only cover the surface with ultramarine.

Titian, however, is famed for the uncompromising blues that come from pure ultramarine. He and his Renaissance contemporaries made use of Venice’s location as a trading port with good access to pigments from the east, and you can see the result in extravagant paintings like Bacchus and Ariadne, with its dazzling blue sky covering almost half the canvas.

Gainsborough’s battle for blue

The Blue Boy, Thomas Gainsborough, c. 1770.
The Blue Boy, Thomas Gainsborough, c. 1770. © Courtesy of the Huntington Art Collections, San Marino, California

In late 18th-century London, there were two power-house painters with a lifelong feud. Sir Joshua Reynolds, the President of the Royal Academy, wanted to create polished, timeless works true to the traditions of the Old Masters. Thomas Gainsborough, a fellow founding member of the Academy, wanted to make works full of free, painterly expression, and didn’t care for traditional conventions. The two clashed over just such topics - and one amusing example is the colour blue.

As part of his Discourses on Art, Reynolds delivered this lecture to his students in 1777:

It ought, in my opinion, to be indispensably observed that the masses of light in a picture be always of a warm mellow color, yellow, red, or a yellowish-white; and that the blue, the gray, or the green colors be kept almost entirely out of these masses, and be used only to support and set off these warm colors; and for this purpose a small portion of cold colors will be sufficient

He’s saying that cool colours such as blue should never be the dominant colour in a painting – and if you look at The Blue Boy, you can see just what Thomas Gainsborough thought of that.

Influenced by the work of Anthony van Dyck, the 17th century Flemish painter, Gainsborough builds up complex layers of painterly strokes to create his subject’s impressively expensive blue outfit, using colours including the lavish lapis lazuli, the darker indigo pigment and the paler cobalt.

Explore more work by Gainsborough at Tate Britain.

1907 Matisse’s Blue Nude

Matisse’s Blue Nudes are a perfect example of what he called ‘cutting directly into colour’; he cut into sheets of paper painted with blue gouache. Matisse’s assistant, Lydia Delectorskya, said he was ‘modelling it like a clay sculpture: sometimes adding, sometimes removing’. Similarly, Assistant Curator Flavia Frigeri likens his use of colour to working with bronze: ‘The whole composition hangs on a solid colour, as it would if you were making a bronze.’

Henri Matisse Blue Nude (I) Spring 1952
Henri Matisse
Blue Nude (I)
Spring 1952

But the big question: why did he choose blue? ‘That’s something I’ve always wondered myself, and never found out,’ says Frigeri. ‘We don’t really know.’

1911 Der Blaue Reiter

Wassily Kandinsky, 'Cossacks' 1910-11
Wassily Kandinsky
Cossacks 1910-11
© ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2002

This Expressionist group, translating as The Blue Rider, was the creation of two painter friends who both loved horses and the colour blue. Franz Marc and Wassily Kandinsky joined forces in 1911, and recruited the likes of Paul Klee, Alexej von Jawlensky and August Macke for their colourful troupe.

Of course, these blue riders were part of a wider philosophy – of art’s potential for emotional and spiritual expression. Marc, a German painter, found horses symbolic of an innocence and a return to nature, while Kandinsky saw horses and riders as a symbol of freedom and heroism.

Kandinsky, famously a champion of colour’s emotional significance, wrote that blue was the most spiritual colour. The deeper it is, he said, ‘the more it awakens human desire for the eternal.’ You can see it dotted poignantly about in his semi-abstract paintings of the time, sometimes as part of a far-off backdrop, and often, as in Cossacks, suggesting the outline of a mysterious mountain settlement.

Both Marc and Macke were killed in the First World War, bringing Der Blaue Reiter to an end, but both Kandinsky’s love of colour and the symbolic rider (you can see one above; the horse’s white head with black outline and black teeth is at the top of the painting; the horse’s back darts diagonally through the centre) in various forms throughout his career.

1957 A new blue: IKB

Yves Klein, 'IKB 79' 1959
Yves Klein
IKB 79 1959
Paint on canvas on wood
object: 1397 x 1197 x 32 mm
Purchased 1972© ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2002

The French artist Yves Klein fell so in love with blue that not only did he make it the star of both his paintings and performances, he patented his own shade.

He began painting single colour canvases in 1947 – finding that free of any representation, they allowed him greater creative freedom – and ten years later, he registered International Klein Blue as a trademark colour. It was a deep ultramarine that he thought had a quality close to pure space (‘a Blue in itself, disengaged from all functional justification’), and it became his signature. Not only did he paint almost 200 monochrome canvases in it – perfecting the technique to create the appearance of depth – but he famously had female models paint their bodies in it, before printing themselves on his canvases.

1993 Derek Jarman’s ode to blue

Having seen IKB79 at Tate in 1974, the British author, artist and film-maker Derek Jarman was inspired to use it as the basis of a feature film. When he was diagnosed as HIV positive in 1986, and his medication caused him to see as if through a blue filter, he returned to the idea of this experimental blue film, which would provide a window of experience for us into the difficult final years of his life.

Derek Jarman still from Blue on display at Tate Modern
Derek Jarman Blue 1993
35mm film transferred to digital file, colour and sound
Duration: 75 mins

Appreciating the mystic and explorative qualities of the colour, Jarman made a single frame of IKB his backdrop for the entirety of his 79-minute film. A script was recited over it – by himself and actors – exploring interpretations of the colour blue, episodes from the life of a character called Blue, and chronicling the effects and experience of living with his terminal virus. Ticking clocks, chimes and gongs in the soundtrack – set against music by Brian Eno and Erik Satie – add to the sense of strain and anxiety that he was living with. Jarman died from AIDS-related complications in 1993, the year after the film was completed.

2008 Roger Hiorns’ blue cave

Enrico David Seizure 2008 interior view of a flat covered in blue crystals from floor to ceiling
Roger Hiorns
Seizure 2008

This Birmingham-born artist transformed a derelict South London flat into a sparkling, crystal-encrusted blue cave – by flooding it with 95,000 litres of liquid copper sulphate, boiled at 100 degrees. Aiming for the look of his work be determined by the properties of his materials rather than his own choices, he left the copper sulphate alone in the bedsit for three weeks. He came back to find that during cooling, crystals had grown along every surface.

Seizure, the sparkling, ultramarine-coloured result, was nominated for 2009’s Turner Prize.

2013 Trafalgar’s cockerel

Katharina Fritsch's Hahn/Cock
Katharina Fritsch's Hahn/Cock, the latest installation on Trafalgar Square's Fourth Plinth

This rich ultramarine, it appears, continues to float in the zeitgeist. Have you noticed it on the highstreet? Over the past few years designers and buyers have put it centre stage in a trend for bright colours – and as such it’s perhaps quite a natural choice for a public art commission too. Whether the German artist Katharina Fritsch contributed to the trend consciously or not in her commission for Trafalgar Square’s Fourth Plinth we don’t know, but its deep, saturated hue does have something of the same rich, forthright associations about it as the dresses of say, designer Roksanda Illincic – and, in fact, as the lapis lazuli robes of a Renaissance Virgin Mary. Quite how Illincic would feel about the comparison of her designs to a giant cockerel, of course, is another matter.

Fritsch, the German artist who created Hahn/Cock for Trafalgar Square’s Fourth Plinth, explains of her decision to make a cockerel:

London is a business centre; there are streets round here like Jermyn Street specialising in men’s suits. There’s a real male culture around the place,” the artist explained of her work. “It is a feminist sculpture, since it is I who am doing something active here – I, a woman, am depicting something male. Historically it has always been the other way around.

And while the colour, presumably, is a bold ode to that masculinity, Boris Johnson had other ideas - as expressed in his delightfully tactless unveiling speech.

For me it stands for the recent British triumph in the Tour de France, which we have won twice in a row… it is a symbol of French sporting pride, brought like a chicken to London. We have mounted this French cock at the heart of our imperial square.