Prussian Blue - A Colourful History

What is Prussian Blue?

Considered the first artificial pigment, Prussian Blue was created in the 1700's, ironically, by an artist seeking to create a new source for red paint. It rapidly gained popularity as first an artist's medium, and later as a color fast dye. It is the traditional "blue" in blueprints and is used as an antidote for certain kinds of heavy metal poisoning A sample of Prussian Blue pigment. Prussian blue was probably synthesized for the first time by the paint maker Diesbach in Berlin around the year 1706. Most historical sources do not mention a first name of Diesbach. Only Berger refers to him as Johann Jacob Diesbach. It was named "Preußisch blau" and "Berlinisch Blau" in 1709 by its first trader. The pigment replaced the expensive Lapis lazuli and was an important topic in the letters exchanged between Johann Leonhard Frisch and the president of the Royal Academy of Sciences, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, between 1708 and 1716. It is first mentioned in a letter written by Frisch to Leibniz, from March 31, 1708. Not later than 1708, Frisch began to promote and sell the pigment across Europe. By August 1709, the pigment had been termed "Preussisch blau"; by November 1709, the German name "Berlinisch Blau" had been used for the first time by Frisch. Frisch himself is the author of the first known publication of Prussian blue in the paper Notitia Coerulei Berolinensis nuper inventi in 1710, as can be deduced from his letters. Diesbach had been working for Frisch since about 1701. In 1731, Georg Ernst Stahl published an account of the first synthesis of Prussian blue. The story involves not only Diesbach but also Johann Konrad Dippel. Diesbach was attempting to create a red lake pigment from cochineal but obtained the blue instead as a result of the contaminated potash he was using. He borrowed the potash from Dippel, who had used it to produce his "animal oil". No other known historical source mentions Dippel in this context. It is therefore difficult to judge the reliability of this story today. In 1724, the recipe was finally published by John Woodward. To date, the "Entombment of Christ", dated 1709 by Pieter van der Werff (Picture Gallery, Sanssouci, Potsdam) is the oldest known painting where Prussian blue was used. Around 1710, painters at the Prussian court were already using the pigment. At around the same time, Prussian blue arrived in Paris, where Antoine Watteau and later his successors Nicolas Lancret and Jean-Baptiste Pater used it in their paintings. The Entombment of Christ, by Pieter van der Werff This Prussian blue pigment is significant since it was the first stable and relatively lightfast blue pigment to be widely used following the loss of knowledge regarding the synthesis of Egyptian blue. European painters had previously used a number of pigments such as indigo dye, smalt, and Tyrian purple, which tend to fade, and the extremely expensive ultramarine made from lapis lazuli. Japanese painters and woodblock print artists likewise did not have access to a long-lasting blue pigment until they began to import Prussian blue from Europe. The Great Wave off Kanagawa, first published between 1826 and 1833. In 1752 the French chemist Pierre J. Macquer made the important step of showing the Prussian blue could be reduced to a salt of iron and a new acid, which could be used to reconstitute the dye. The new acid, hydrogen cyanide, first isolated from Prussian blue in pure form and characterized about 1783 by the Swedish chemist Carl Wilhelm Scheele, was eventually given the name Blausäure (literally "Blue acid") because of its derivation from Prussian blue, and in English became known popularly as Prussic acid. Cyanide, a colorless anion that forms in the process of making Prussian Blue, derives its name from the Greek word for dark blue.
In a few days Mr. Bingley returned Mr. Bennet's visit, and sat about ten minutes with him in his library. He had entertained hopes of being admitted to a sight of the young ladies, of whose beauty he had heard much; but he saw only the father. The ladies were somewhat more fortunate, for they had the advantage of ascertaining, from an upper window, that he wore a blue coat and rode a black horse. -Pride and Prejudice
Prior to the use of Prussian blue for clothing dye, both indigo and woad were used to achieve a similar shade. Indigo was particularly expensive to import and farmers in England began growing it at home in the mid 1700's. The discovery of Prussian Blue, however, as a synthetic dye, decreased the nation's reliance on imported products. Blue was becoming particularly fashionable and with the many wars being fought by the British navy at the time, manufacturers were hard pressed to keep up. Charles James Fox, March 1782, by Joshua Reynolds. During the American Revolution, the leader of the Whig Party in England, Charles James Fox, wore a blue coat and buff waistcoat and breeches, the colours of the Whig Party and of the uniform of George Washington, whose principles he supported. The men's suit followed the basic form of the military uniforms of the time, particularly the uniforms of the cavalry. In the early 19th century, during the Regency of the future King George IV, the blue suit was revolutionized by a courtier named George Beau Brummel. Brummel created a suit that closely fitted the human form. The new style had a long tail coat cut to fit the body and long tight trousers to replace the knee-length breeches and stockings of the previous century. He used plain colours, such as blue and grey, to concentrate attention on the form of the body, not the clothes. Brummel observed, "If people turn to look at you in the street, you are not well dressed." George "Beau" Brummell, watercolor by Richard Dighton (1805) This fashion was adopted by the Prince Regent, then by London society and the upper classes. Originally the coat and trousers were different colours, but in the 19th century the suit of a single colour became fashionable. By the late 19th century the black suit had become the uniform of businessmen in England and America. In the 20th century, the black suit was largely replaced by the dark blue or grey suit. Le Beau Monde, 1807 The fashion plates from the Continental expatriot, Nicolaus Wilhelm von Heideloff, in Heideloff`s Gallery of Fashion show particular use of the shade, particularly for women, and by the early 1800's, it was showing up in other English Fashion plates, for both men and women's wear. Who can forget 1805 Walking Dress: Bonnet of Blue Velvet, with White Ostrich Feather. Spencer of Blue Velvet, trimmed with Swansdown. Round Dress of Cambric Muslin, with a Lace Flounce. Boots Blue. Buff Gloves; and Swansdown Muff. Prussian blue was not confined merely to paintings and fabric dyes, however. It has been discovered in several places, both in the paint and wallpaper of the Prince of Wales's Brighton Pavilion, proving it's permanent place in the fashion of the Regency. The South Galleries in 1823, from John Nash’s The Royal Pavilion at Brighton, 1826.    

1 comment

Thoroughly enjoyed this article about Prussian Blue. I had noticed the color mentioned before in historical novels and of course seen the color in paint supply stores but I never realized what a change the discovery of it made in art and fashion!

Razzletaz July 26, 2020

Leave a comment