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History of Ultramarine:

Natural Ultramarine

Ultramarine is famous for having been the most expensive pigment. It was more expensive than gold during the Renaissance. First used in 6th century Afghanistan, the pigment found its most extensive use in 14th and 15th century illuminated manuscripts and Italian panel paintings, often reserved for the cloaks of Christ and the Virgin. It's use as a pigment among ancient mediterranean cultures is very rare. It was imported to Europe by way of Venice.

Synthetic Ultramarine

Synthetic ultramarine is one of the best-documented pigments of the nineteenth century probably because its invention was requested of chemists and not the result of their independent research. Ultramarine, genuine made from the semi-precious gem lapis lazuli was so costly in the nineteenth century that artists infrequently used it. The hue is a necessary component in a balanced palette of warm and cool colors; without it a cool, deep blue is lacking.

The beginning of the development of ultramarine blue, artificial was known from Goethe. In about 1787, he observed the blue deposits on the walls of lime kilns near Palermo in Italy. He was aware of the use of these glassy deposits as a substitute for lapis lazuli in decorative applications. He did not, however, mention if it was suitable to grind for a pigment. The blue deposits were also taken from the Saint Gobain glassworks by M. Tessäert who found them in a soda furnace. Tessäert was reportedly the first to suggest to the Societé d'Encouragement pour L'Industrie Nationale that a method for making a synthetic ultramarine should be investigated. He gave his blue samples to Vauquelin. In 1814, Vauquelin published his findings that the blue masses were similar in composition to the costly lapis lazuli in the Annales de Chimie LXXXIX, "Note sur une couleur bleue artificiale analogue a l'outremer". In 1824, the Societé d'Encouragement offered a prize of six thousand francs to anyone who could produce a synthetic variety not to exceed three hundred francs per kilo. The prize was not awarded for four years because all that was submitted to them were imitations based on cobalt or Prussian blue without regard for the analysis of the gem which was published in 1806 by Désormes and Clément. On February 4, 1828, the prize was awarded to Jean Baptiste Guimet who submitted a process he had secretly developed in 1826. Guimet's ultramarine was sold for four hundred francs per pound. In Paris a short while later, lapis lazuli cost between three to five thousand francs per pound at that time. Independent of Guimet, Christian Gottlob Gmelin, a professor of chemistry at the University of Tubingen discovered a slightly different method based on the analytical results of Désormes and Clément which he published only one month after Guimet. Gmelin claimed that he beat Guimet and a rivalry ensued for years but France upheld Guimet's right to the prize. By about 1830, Guimet's ultramarine was being produced at a factory that he opened in Fleurieu-sur-Sâone, France. F. A. Köttig at the Meissen porcelain works in Germany was producing Gmelin's method by 1830 as well.

French ultramarine blue was non-toxic and as permanent as the natural variety but darker and less azure. It was prepared in both oil and watercolor. In oil it dried well despite a high percentage of oil needed for grinding and in watercolor produced clean washes.

When was Ultramarine used?

Discovery Used until
XIIth century, Artificial (1828) Continues in use

Use of Ultramarine among paintings in the SchackGallery, Munich:

Natural Ultramarine

Synthetic Ultramarine

Source: Kühn