Dutch Blue

A few years ago I took a seminar in ukiyo-e history at my art school. One of the other students, a Chinese woman, was the star of the class, she had an MA in Art History from Beijing University and was working on a PhD. She always knew how to read all the obscure kanji seals, which was a delight to everyone, especially the professor. She spent an entire semester investigating one strange question, I tried to help her research it, but we never could find an answer. But oddly enough, this morning I turned on the TV and NHK had a 30 minute documentary about this very subject: Dutch Blue.

In Japan, a particularly intense color known as Dutch Blue or Delft Blue, is well known for its common use in ukiyo-e printmaking. But the question was posed, what is Dutch Blue, what is its chemical composition and where did it come from? Did it come from the Netherlands? We never could find out the answer.

But today’s art history lecture on NHK was about Dutch and Flemish painting. Apparently the famous Vermeer painting “Girl with a Pearl Earring” is on display in Tokyo, and it has caused the same sensation that accompanies it everywhere it is displayed. Could the blue scarf the girl is wearing be the same Dutch Blue?

Indeed it is, but not for the reasons you might think. The NHK crew visits a traditional Dutch paint maker, and we see his ancient methods. He even lives in a windmill, using the wind-driven millstones to grind mineral pigments. But Dutch Blue is too precious to mass produce, so we see his hand-grinding apparatus, a tall copper pestle with a long shafted mortar. The paintmaker retrieves a chunk of bright blue mineral from his shelf, and at last we see what Dutch Blue is composed of: Lapis Lazuli.

Lapis is a semiprecious stone, almost the entire world’s supply comes from Afghanistan and Iraq. Dutch traders brought the mineral to Europe and it was used in oil painting during the Renaissance, but due to its expense, was too precious for everyday use. But thinly applied and mixed with white, bright, luminous blue skies became a hallmark of Flemish landscape painting.

But in European painting, this color is known as ultramarine, and if the color really had come to Japan through European traders, it would probably be known by another name. That is the most interesting part of this story.

Dutch Blue is a misnomer. According to the documentary, Dutch Blue first came into widespread knowledge in Japan on imported Chinese porcelain. Most people are familiar with Ming era ceramics and their bright blue painted markings. The color really should be known as Ming Blue. But Ming Blue is not made from Lapis Lazuli, it is cobalt oxide, even though the color is extremely close to Dutch Blue.

By a historical coincidence, Ming ceramics were first imported to Japan at the same time Dutch traders came to Japan. Dutch trade goods were wildly popular, and the Ming Blue color became associated with the Dutch goods. Real Delft pottery with the distinctive cobalt blue color would not be made in Europe for nearly a hundred years after the glaze was discovered by Chinese ceramicists.

The question still remains, how did the Lapis Lazuli come to Japan? Perhaps it was brought by Dutch traders, I didn’t hear anything about that in this documentary. Most water-based pigments used in nihon-ga and ukiyo-e are mineral pigments, and we now know that finely powdered Lapis Lazuli was used in these Japanese artworks. But at least now we know how Dutch Blue got its name.

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