Everybody Wanted That Blue

It seems to me that history has this special fascination with the color blue in a lot of different ways.  In Catholic paintings, only the most important figures deserved the precious blue pigments, which were extracted from a semiprecious stone called lapis lazuli found in Afghanistan. In the modern era, French artist Yves Klein developed his unique International Klein Blue (IKB) to strike people's visual nerves. In the movie, Blue Is The Warmest Color, Emma's (played by Léa Seydoux ) blue hair left an unforgettable impression to the audience. 

left: The Virgin and Child or The Madonna of the Book by Sandro Botticelli, 1480; middle: Winged Victory, Yves Klein, 1962; right:  Léa Seydoux in Blue Is The Warmest Color, 2013

left: The Virgin and Child or The Madonna of the Book by Sandro Botticelli, 1480; middle: Winged Victory, Yves Klein, 1962; right:  Léa Seydoux in Blue Is The Warmest Color, 2013

But today, I want to talk about a different type of blue. The blue that drove European aristocracy  and other wealthy classes crazy. People were proud to have one and some even built a room just for it. It is like having a Hermès Birkin bag for women nowadays, but more delicate. That is cobalt blue. Well, to be more specific, it was the combination of cobalt blue pigments and fine Chinese porcelain known as blue-and-white porcelain (青花瓷 in Chinese). 

Jar with Dragon, early 15th century, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Jar with Dragon, early 15th century, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

The aesthetic of blue-and-white porcelain actually came from the Middle East. Blue was a very important color in Islamic culture as it represented water. Blue tiles were commonly used to decorate the exteriors of many mosques. Moreover, the cobalt blue pigments that the Chinese used were imported from Iran. Under the influence of Islamic culture, the Chinese designed floral patterns on porcelain reflected the ideal image of heaven for Muslims. With the help of frequent trading between China and middle-eastern countries, Chinese blue-and-white porcelain soon became popular in the region in the 14th century. 

Blue tiles on a mosque exterior

Blue tiles on a mosque exterior

Marco Polo introduced porcelain to Europe in the 14th century but the madness for this precious commodity didn't pick up until two hundred years later. The deep blue on the translucent white porcelain seemed so exquisite compared to the heavy metal objects that the Europeans normally saw. At a time when social medias didn't exist, one of the few ways to take a peek at the mysterious orient would be the Chinese landscapes painted on the vases. Having a porcelain from China showed not only the owner's taste and wealth, but also their vision of the world.  At its peak in the 18th century, over two million pieces of porcelain were imported to London when the population was no more than six million. Prominent porcelain collectors like the aristocracy and wealthy merchants decorated their rooms with porcelain at every corner. 

Ewer, 16th century, made in China (porcelain); made in London, England (silver-gilt), The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Ewer, 16th century, made in China (porcelain); made in London, England (silver-gilt), The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

The David Vases once belonged to Sir Percival David, who collected over 1500 pieces of Chinese ceramics 

The David Vases once belonged to Sir Percival David, who collected over 1500 pieces of Chinese ceramics 

The Daughters of Edward Darley Bolt, John Singer Sargent, 1882

The Daughters of Edward Darley Bolt, John Singer Sargent, 1882

The original vases in The Daughters of Edward Darley Bolt, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. They travelled with the Bolt family back and forth between Paris and Boston.

The original vases in The Daughters of Edward Darley Bolt, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. They travelled with the Bolt family back and forth between Paris and Boston.

The Porcelain Room at Charlottenburg Palace, Berlin 

The Porcelain Room at Charlottenburg Palace, Berlin 

The ceiling of former Santos Palace in Portugal was decorated with 260 porcelain plates from China's Ming and Qing dynasties

The ceiling of former Santos Palace in Portugal was decorated with 260 porcelain plates from China's Ming and Qing dynasties

However, because only the Chinese knew the secrets to make porcelain, Europe was losing a lot of money to China. They had been seeking local producers to take the place of expensive imported Chinese porcelain.  Delftware, a kind of blue and white porcelain imitation from Netherlands, became one of these cheaper substitutes. However, Delftware was not real porcelain. It was stoneware covered in white glaze and decorated with metal oxides. 

Dish with a Winter Landscape 1650. Tin-glazed earhtenware, diameter 32 cm. Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

Dish with a Winter Landscape 1650. Tin-glazed earhtenware, diameter 32 cm. Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

Tulip vase crafted bu the Dutch

Tulip vase crafted bu the Dutch

If you think about Chinese ceramics today, the first image that pops up is probably blue-and-white porcelain. It was once so popular and became an icon for China.  However, without the influences from Islamic culture and acceptances of European market, blue-and-white porcelain would probably not exist. The vase itself was like a melting pot that told a story of cultural exchange in the past centuries.   

P.S. Next post, I want to expand the topic on the relentless effort on porcelain production in the western countries. Stay tuned!

Author: Michele Xiaoyun Fan