A close up view of a geometric vegetal pattern on a ceramic vessel in varying hues of blue and white.

At A Glance

From the skies above to the seas below, we live surrounded by the color blue. Cultural and geographic context might influence what is perceived as “blue,” but the range of hues that fall under that term have been used across cultures throughout human history. Whether found in natural materials or made through specific techniques, blue is an iconic decorative and symbolic color that is found across the museum’s collections.

Making Blue

There are seemingly as many ways to make blue as there are shades of blue. Some blues in the museum’s collections use naturally colored materials, such as stones that were mined, cut, and polished before being used, or ground to make pigments. Others are made through combinations of materials and production techniques.

Azurite, a blue mineral containing copper, is unusual because it becomes paler in color the more finely it is ground. Chinese painters used this to their advantage when painting ancestor portraits, rendering a lovely gradation of blues in the decoration of dragon robes, all made with azurite ground to finer and finer particles.

Three magnified images of the blue mineral azurite, ground to increasingly fine degrees and lightening in color from left to right.
Left: Polished azurite mineral; Center: Coarse-ground azurite; Right: Fine-ground azurite. Image courtesy of Conservation and Scientific Research, National Museum of Asian Art, Smithsonian Institution

Copper-based blues are some of the first man-made colorants. In ancient Egypt, blue pigments were originally made from lapis lazuli, which had to be imported from Afghanistan and was therefore expensive, or cobalt or azurite, which were unstable. In the predynastic period (ca. 3250 BCE), Egyptians began to produce so-called Egyptian blue, which is considered the one of the earliest man-made pigments. It is made by combining quartz with calcium and copper sources and heating the mixture for an extended period.

The process of dissolving copper in unleaded glass or ceramic glazes forms a brilliant turquoise color seen in many objects.   

Jar with lid is an object in the NMAA collection.
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Jar with lid

Turquoise is a semiprecious stone that has been used for decorative purposes in China since ancient times. Depending on how much copper and iron are in the mineral, its color ranges from sky blue to pale green. Small turquoise chips are used to inlay this cast bronze plaque dating to the early Bronze Age (1800–400 BCE) and representing the oldest example in the collection. A similar application recurs on ceremonial bronze weapons, tools, and chariot fittings created several centuries later in the late Shang (ca. 1250–ca. 1050 BCE) capital of Anyang. In these instances, small cut pieces of polished turquoise were held in place with a black paste. Turquoise was also used as a sculpting medium not unlike other valued materials like jade, marble, fluorite, and bone. 

Plaque with taotie is an object in the NMAA collection.
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Plaque with taotie

Cobalt is another element that has been used to make blue, but it is believed it was first used to color glass and enamel inlay in Egypt and throughout the Middle East. Cobalt pigments that have been dissolved in a clear glaze give blue-on-white ware, discussed in the following section, its distinctive blue shades. Cobalt glass can also be ground to use as a painting pigment called smalt.   

A few blue colors come from plants. Dayflower flowers can be extracted to make a blue dye that has been used in Japanese woodblock prints. A much more common blue dye is indigo, which is made when the leafy green parts of certain plants are fermented. Indigo can be used as both a paint pigment and a textile dye. The practice of farming indigo in Japan dates to around the seventh century, when the plant was first imported from China. Soon after, indigo became a pigment in painting and papermaking, resulting in paper of the highest quality whose dark blue color remains vibrant for virtually a thousand years. Indigo-dyed paper was rare and expensive, and it gained popularity for aristocratic commissions of sutras, texts that capture the teachings of the Buddha or commentary on those teachings. The dark blue worked particularly well with scriptures inscribed in gold, a color with numinous associations. In later centuries and in the modern era, indigo became more widely available when it was used as a dye in textile making for everything from kimono to blue jeans. 

The first man-made blue to rival indigo is called Prussian blue (although indigo can be made synthetically now, too). Unlike many mineral pigments and early man-made blue pigments, Prussian blue has a vibrant color and a very fine particle size. It can also be used as a dye. When it first came to Japan, it became so popular for use in woodblock prints that some prints were made only with Prussian blue. 

In the Mountains of Totomi Province, from the series <em>Thirty-six views of Mount Fuji</em> is an object in the NMAA collection.
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In the Mountains of Totomi Province, from the series Thirty-six views of Mount Fuji

Plants and minerals are not the only source of blue in the natural world. Blue feathers from kingfishers, which are native to some parts of southern China and South and Southeast Asia, have been used as inlay in Chinese jewelry. These feathers were chosen to make jewelry because of their dazzling visual appeal. 

Hair Ornament is an object in the NMAA collection.
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Hair Ornament

Blue and White

The aesthetic for blue-on-white ceramics originated in ninth-century Iraq, where local potters used cobalt to decorate earthenware that had been covered with white slip. Chinese potters later applied their advanced ceramic technology and artistic vision to create a new technique and new styles of blue-and-white porcelain, which became a globally coveted commodity.

Trade and cultural interactions “color” the history of Chinese blue-and-white porcelain. In the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, only China could produce these dazzling works because of their access to kaolin clay. These wares found a strong market in the Islamic world. To create the gemlike blue designs, potters applied the metallic pigment cobalt oxide beneath a colorless glaze. At the time, most cobalt was imported to China from West Asia.

Go in depth with one of these blue-and-white Chinese porcelain works with curator Jan Stuart:

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Video | “Objects We Love - Porcelain Cup with enamels over colorless glaze” | View on YouTube

Four large and symmetrically placed circles frame two alternating designs: a dragon-headed turtle among waves and a crane among clouds. These auspicious motifs represent wishes for longevity and good health. The jar was originally used to store food in a wealthy home. Made at the court-managed kilns known as Bunwon, it exemplifies the Chinese technique of brushing cobalt pigment beneath a clear glaze, which was introduced to Korean porcelain makers in the fifteenth century.

Jar with designs of tortoises and cranes is an object in the NMAA collection.
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Jar with designs of tortoises and cranes

Produced primarily in China and the Middle East, blue-and-white ceramics were sought after across the globe. Located along maritime trading networks and already a producer of ceramics, Vietnam became prominent in regional markets during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, when China closed itself to foreign trade. In addition to its location, Vietnam’s natural resources may have enabled it to excel—the country’s mines contain cobalt, the mineral used to create the rich blue pigment characteristic of these vessels.

Blue-and-white ceramics captured Western imaginations as well. Blue-and-white Delft ware, developed in the Netherlands in the 1600s, was an attempt to recreate the distinctive decorative motif of the porcelain that was such a popular and valuable import from China. When shipping magnate Frederick Leyland (1831–1892) hired the gifted architect Thomas Jeckyll (1827–1881) to redesign the dining room in his new home—today known as the Peacock Room—Jeckyll incorporated gilded antique leather wall hangings and latticework shelving to showcase Leyland’s prized collection of Chinese blue-and-white porcelain. Jeckyll and Leyland conceived of the room as an Orientalist pastiche of Western conventions and Eastern forms. The long windows on the east side overlooked a private park, and the décor was meant to evoke a European notion of a Chinese garden pavilion. When Leyland ultimately hired James McNeill Whistler (1834–1903) to repaint the room, Whistler was inspired by the delicate patterns and vivid colors of the Chinese porcelain and the blue-and-gold motif of a peacock feather. He covered the entire room—including the ceiling and antique leather wall panels—in a deep blue green with gold detailing.

Blue and white ceramics on gilded shelves in the Peacock Room
Learn more about the history of the Peacock Room.

Associations of Blue

Hsbd, “blue” in ancient Egypt, was a rare and expensive color. Its value, rarity, and close connections with the colors of the sky and the water gave it a particular significance in Egyptian culture. Gods were painted in blue, and the pharaoh wore blue in his crown because he was god on earth. He was represented in blue after death because he became deified.

Ru ware, the color of which is classically described as pale blue sky, was named for an ancient administrative district in China. It was made only for a short period just before the end of the Northern Song dynasty (907–1127). It typically has a grayish clay body covered by thick glaze, with or without a dense crackle. 

Guan ware long-necked vase with raised bow-string decoration is an object in the NMAA collection.
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Guan ware long-necked vase with raised bow-string decoration

Blue’s symbolic association with water is a widespread and enduring one. Water is essential to human life, the cultivation of crops, and the development of civilizations. When used in artistic representations of water, blue therefore often conjures concepts of life, fertility, and rebirth.

  • Nabeshima ware dish with design of reeds in mist, seven-sun size is an object in the NMAA collection.
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    Nabeshima ware dish with design of reeds in mist, seven-sun size
  • Bowl with head of the goddess Hathor is an object in the NMAA collection.
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    Bowl with head of the goddess Hathor
  • <em>The Amida Falls in the Far Reaches of the Kiso Road (Kisoji no oku Amida-ga-taki)</em> from the series <em>A Tour of Waterfalls in Various Provinces (Shokoku taki meguri)</em> is an object in the NMAA collection.
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    The Amida Falls in the Far Reaches of the Kiso Road (Kisoji no oku Amida-ga-taki) from the series A Tour of Waterfalls in Various Provinces (Shokoku taki meguri)

Among the most iconic depictions of water in the museum’s collections are Katsushika Hokusai’s (1760–1849) depictions of crashing waves. Dive into one of these works with curator Frank Feltens:

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Video | "Breaking Waves" | View on YouTube

In Tibet, blue was the color of choice for the Buddha’s curls, even though Buddhist texts describe his hair simply as “dark.” Wealthy donors demonstrated their piety and generosity by commissioning large images fashioned from precious materials. Made from one of two minerals, lapis or azurite, blue pigments were considered luxurious because they were expensive imports. Such opulent goods conveyed the donor’s respect for the Buddha as well as his or her social status.

The Buddha (Awakened One) is an object in the NMAA collection.
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The Buddha ("Awakened One")

The color blue does not always carry positive connotations. Today, having “the blues” connotes sadness and melancholy. In Japanese kabuki theater, blue is used as stage makeup to depict the dead and dying.

One of the most famous plays in the kabuki repertoire is Yoshitsune and the Thousand Cherry Trees (Yoshitsune sembon zakura). Originally written for the puppet theater, the play liberally rearranges history in its account of the tragic rivalry between the Taira and Minamoto warrior families in the late twelfth century. In the play, after the defeat of the Taira forces in the Battle of Dannoura (1185), Taira no Tomomori (1151–1185), who committed suicide in the historic battle, lives on and disguises himself as his own ghost to attack his rival Yoshitsune’s ship. He is stopped by the power of the Buddhist monk, Benkei, a loyal follower of Yoshitsune. Utaemon, the actor playing Taira no Tomomori’s ghost, wears the blue makeup that is customary for ghost roles. With arrows piercing his armor, he makes his final stand. The fine composition and printing in this image give it a high artistic quality and finesse.

The Actor Nakamura Utaemon III as Taira no Tomomori is an object in the NMAA collection.
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The Actor Nakamura Utaemon III as Taira no Tomomori

Perception of color is inherently subjective. Dividing lines between colors are ambiguous and shift depending on cultural context. The distinctions between the colors of blue and green, for instance, were historically less pronounced in China and Japan than in the West. The blue-and-green style of painting, which originated in the late seventh century among artists at the Tang dynasty (618–907) imperial court in China, made seamless use of this color continuum and was associated with luxury and grandeur.