The Extraordinary History of Prussian Blue

For anyone who paints today, it is hard to believe there was ever a time when the beautiful, versatile, and stable Prussian Blue pigment did not exist. But the fact is it is just a few hundred years old.

It was discovered, by accident, in the first decade of the 1700s in Berlin by a colour-maker called Diesbach.  Prior to that time, blue pigments had been sourced from “indigo, smalt, azurite and ultramarine, derived from lapis lazuli, which was expensive.”  The new process was cheap and easily manufactured. Its first verifiable use in an artwork was in “The Entombment of Christ” by Pieter vander Werff in 1709.

entombment

I didn’t know any of this until I read a fascinating article called “Prussian Blue and Its Partner In Crime” by Philip McCouat in the excellent Journal of Art In Society.  The article goes on to describe the pigment’s use in Europran art and, notably, in the creation of an entire genre of Japanese painting.

The second part of McCouat’s article (“…Partner in Crime”) takes the story into even more interesting ground once a Swedish chemist discovered that by mixing Prussian Blue with diluted sulphuric acid he could create the deadly poison hydrogen cyanide, a favourite of poisoners ever since.  This section of the essay details the first murderer caught by telegraph, and the use of cyanide and its derivatives both by US gas chambers and by Nazi mass executioners.

Who knew that such a beautiful colour could have such a blotchy history? Mix up your favourite beverage, settle back, and enjoy this fascinating long read.

 

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One Response to The Extraordinary History of Prussian Blue

  1. Interesting article! We encounter Prussian blue more often in the form of cyanotypes and blueprints, which are the same process. They are stable as long as they are not exposed to much light, which will cause them to fade dramatically, or to alkaline environments, which will cause the colour to change to purple-grey.
    Here are a couple of Vancouver examples still in fine condition: Cyanotype photograph and blueprint.

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