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picasso wearing a mask at golfe juan near vallauris

Cerulean blue

On February 17, 1901, Carlos Casagemas, a Spanish poet and artist, was having drinks with friends in the smart new Parisian cafe l’Hippodrome, near Montmartre, when he pulled out a gun and shot himself in the right temple. His friends were distraught, none more so than Pablo Picasso, who had never quite recovered from watching his sister die of diphtheria six years previously. His grief cast a pall over his works for several years. He abandoned almost the entire palette, except for the one color that could adequately express his grief and loss: blue. This isn’t the first time blue has helped people express matters of the spirit.

When, at the end of the Second World War, the UN was formed to maintain global peace, they chose for their symbol a map of the world cupped by a pair of olive branches on a slightly grayish cerulean ground. Oliver Lundquist, the architect and designer who created the insignia, chose this shade because it is “the opposite of red, the war color.” It is spiritual as well as peaceful. Many Hindu gods, including Krishna, Shiva, and Rama, are depicted with skin the color of the sky, symbolizing their affinity with the infinite. The French call it bleu céleste heavenly blue. It is also, confusingly, the color many of the buildings at the Church of Scientology’s Gold Base in California—including the mansion awaiting the reincarnation of the religion’s founder, L. Ron Hubbard. (The man himself, when founding Scientology, is reported to have told a colleague, “Let’s sell these people a piece of sky blue.”) Pantone named its paler, forget-me-not shade as the color of the millennium, guessing that consumers would “be seeking inner peace and spiritual fulfillment in the new millennium.”

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UN Photo Martine Perret

A true cerulean pigment—one of the cobalt family —was not available to artists until the 1860s, and then only as a watercolor. Made from a mixture of cobalt and tin oxides known as cobalt stannate, it did not make much headway until the 1870s, when it was finally released as an oil paint; in this medium it lost the slight chalkiness it had in watercolors and seduced a generation of painters. While Van Gogh preferred to create his own approximation of the tint using a subtle mixture of cobalt blue, a little cadmium yellow, and white, others were less cautious. Paul Signac, known for his airy pointillism, squeezed countless tubes dry, as did many of his fellows, including Monet. When the photographer and writer Brassaï ran into Picasso’s Parisian paint supplier in November 1943, the man handed him a piece of white paper filled with Picasso’s handwriting. “At first glance it looks like a poem,” wrote Brassaï, but, he realized, it was actually Picasso’s last paint order. Third on the list, just below “White, permanent—” and “White, silver—,” is “Blue, cerulean.”

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Paul Signac
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Text from Cerulean, page 204/205, The Secret Lives of Color by Kassia St. Clair.
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