Throughout history, lapis lazuli and the blue pigment that is extracted from it have have occupied a special place in the fine and decorative arts: an expensive, semi-precious stone that for centuries was exclusively sourced fron the rather inaccessible mountains of Badakhshan (today’s Afghanistan). Brought to Europe through the main trading port of Venice, the extracted pigment was known to Europeans as ultramarine (from ‘beyond the sea’). Ultramarine was the most expensive pigment on artists palettes, and long reserved for special passages in a painting such as Mary’s robes.
The Anunciation (1435)
Fra Angelico, Prado Madrid
Ultramarine, intensely blue and fine, had no equal as a pigment. When they couldn’t afford this paint, artists used alternatives such as smalt: cobalt-containing ground glass which was a by-product from the ceramics industry. However, smalt was very transparent, coarse and could be prone to fading. Another alternative was copper ore mined in northern Europe, from which azurite (a copper carbonate) was extracted. The best grade azurite was obtained from the largest particles, however this meant that the paint was coarse. The supreme ultramarine was therefore viewed as an extremely luxurious choice and would take paintings to an entirely different level.
The cost of ultramarine was not only due to the cost of mining and transportation into Europe, but also due to a laborious and precise production process by specialised manufacturers, before it was bought by artists. ‘Raw’ lapis lazuli was first separated from other minerals (calcite, quartz and pyrite) by crushing the stones, followed by grinding this to a fine powder and mixing with a paste of wax, pine resin and linseed oil. The resulting waxy dough was kneaded in a lye solution (typically potassim hydroxide) which caused the ultramarine particles to settle in the alkaline water. The first extraction yielded the finest and purest grade of azurite. Subsequent ‘washes’ caused the unwanted minerals to enter the solution, resulting in a less pure azurite. The last and least pure extract was known as ultramarine ash which had a grey colour. Artists did use all grades; some contemporary paint mix recipes mention ‘ash’, for example in Beurs’s “De groote waereld in ‘t kleen geschildert” published in 1692. The price of good quality ultramarine comes to no surprise when it comprises less than 1% of the weight of the original material. Ultramarine was therefore by far the most expensive pigment on the palette of Medieval, Renaissance and post-Renaissance painters.
Left: for centuries lapis lazuli was exclusively sourced from Badakhshan.
Right: Lapis lazuli in its natural state (Wikipedia).
Some painters fully exploited this luxury status of ultamarine. Willem van Aelst (1627-1683), one of the most influential painters of the Dutch Golden Age, had many wealthy patrons and customers. Knowing the value and perceived value of fine ultramarine, he used it to paint significant areas of his paintings and even the preparatory layers of the painting which would be overpainted (underpainting). This approach ensured a huge intrinsic value that would be understood and appreciated by a wealthy 17th century audience.
Hunting still life with a velvet bag on a marble ledge (1665)
Willem van Aelst
Fine ultramarine, sourced from Afghanistan, is also part of my own palette. Still expensive today, it is a truly amazing colour. Next time you see one of my paintings, look out for this beautiful blue!
References and continued reading:
Still Lifes: Techniques and Style. A Wallert (ed.) Rijksmuseum Amsterdam, 1999.
Elegance and Refinement, the still-life paintings of Willem van Aelst. T. Paul et al., 2012.
De groote waereld in ‘t kleen geschildert. W. Beurs, 1692.