A history of blue

Did you know blue has been the favourite colour of Westerners over the last couple of centuries?

Unknown This book is and intriguing idea, although not entirely well executed. I enjoyed the broad sweep of time that Pastoureau attempted to cover – the Neolithic and ancient use of colour very briefly, the medieval world and on in a bit more detail – because the comparison across hundreds of years is fascinating. Unsurprisingly though, this was also one of its downfalls, since the occasional times it treated an idea or subject in detail it felt out of place; and the lack of detail in some areas annoyed me. In some ways this felt, perhaps deliberately, like this was a preparatory work; a number of times Pastoureau raised questions as areas requiring further research, or mentioned medieval manuscripts that have yet to be transliterated or studied in any fashion.

In appearance this is halfway between a history book and a coffee table number. It’s beautifully presented, and the pictures themselves are delightful – most pages have one or two, sometimes three, pictures, illustrating some pertinent point about where and how blue was being used, or other uses of colour at relevant points. But the text is too dense to really work as an art book, while it’s not long enough somehow for it to feel like a really serious treatment of the subject – especially not over such a vast span of time.

As a history book, I remain unconvinced by some of Pastoureau’s suggestions about how blue worked in culture. The lack of blue in very early art, Neolithic right through to much ancient illustration, is curious but I didn’t entirely buy his explanation for its lack of symbolism and therefore appearance and I’m not sure why. Perhaps it just didn’t feel explained enough to accept such a radical idea. This problem permeated much of the text, in fact; the sober, moral overtones that blue acquired thanks to the Protestants, as well as the issues discussed around its symbolism in the later medieval period, were presented as a little bit too definitive, a little bit too unarguable, for me to be entirely comfortable. Clearly Pastoureau was not setting out to write the definitive work on the colour; he himself points out that a vast amount more work needs to be done in a whole range of areas before such a thing is possible. And perhaps it’s also a fault of translation; maybe there was a bit more uncertainty in the original French?

Anyway, overall this is a fascinating book that has made me think about colour and its uses, but not entirely satisfactory.

3 responses

  1. Did you ever read the book on colour/dyes by Victoria Finlay (Colour: Travels Through The Paint Box, or Color: A natural history of the palette)? It treats history and uses of several common dyes for the main colours. It is another flawed but interesting work. Trying to do too much, but giving some interesting insights in a readable way.

    1. I haven’t – I’ve read a book about red that I enjoyed, ages ago – they both sound intriguing. Thanks for the rec!

      1. They are the same book, just with UK/US titles respectively. Finlay also wrote a book on jewel stones, which I did like a bit less than her book on colours. But is a similar combination of travelogue, anecdote and background stories.

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