With so many blue pigments available in the market today, it’s easy to take Prussian blue for granted and forget about the impact it had in the art world. Before the 18th century, the only blue pigments available in the market were made from natural plants and minerals such as Lapis Lazuli, Azurite, Smalt and Indigo. These pigments were not only incredibly expensive, but also extremely laborious to make. Smalt pigment was unstable and tended to fade with time and plant dyes such as Indigo faded when it was exposed to UV light.
But between 1704 and 1706, Prussian blue, the first purely synthetic pigment, was accidentally discovered by Swiss colormaker Johann Jacob Diesbach in Berlin and it changed the course of art forever. This new blue pigment was nontoxic, intensely colored and stable (extremely lightfast), easy to make and, above all, affordable. Prussian blue became an instant sensation and spread rapidly throughout Europe.
Richard Wilson, Rome: St Peter’s and the Vatican from the Janiculum, 1753
Thomas Cole, The Mountain Ford, 1846
In France, Prussian blue helped give the Rococo movement it’s exuberant style. The intensely coloured blue gave artists much greater freedom of expression in the depiction of natural scenery such as skies, mountains and bodies of water. The new blue was particularly effective for mixing saturated greens for painting trees and foliage.
Richard Wilson, considered the “father” of British landscape painting, used Prussian blue throughout his painting “St Peter’s and the Vatican from the Janiculum” painted in 1753. Artists across Europe all now depended on Prussian blue.
Prussian blue continued to be highly esteemed by artists in the 19th and 20th centuries. Thomas Cole, generally acknowledged as the founder of the Hudson River School, combined Chrome yellow with Prussian blue to achieve a very desirable bright green in his landscape paintings.
During the early 19th century, Prussian blue was also known as “Antwerp blue”, which was a mixture of Prussian blue mixed with Blanc Fixe (Barium Sulphate). This mixture created a softer and more transparent version of Prussian blue.
The use of Prussian Blue still continues today and is available from many brands. If you don’t own a tube of it, I highly recommend it! It’s clear to see why this blue is one of the most important artist colors in history, particularly for landscape painters.
I hope this article about the brief history of Prussian Blue was helpful. You can check my video on Prussian Blue and how I make Prussian Blue oil paint below!