The color blue relates to much more than just sadness. It underlies the rich exoticism of lapis lazuli, the once greedily coveted source of the pigment ultramarine. Blue can symbolize desire; even Australia’s satin bowerbirds use blue objects in their courtship rituals. And artists the world over have dedicated major works to blue’s many depths. The color has a way of seizing the imagination, often from out of the blue.
The sapphire-blue Mediterranean Sea is “wine-dark,” according to Homer. The poet never even mentions the color blue, which has led some scholars to surmise that the ancient Greeks were color-blind. But blue is absent from most early literature. Curiously, studies indicate it has generally been the last color name to enter any language. Relative to other colors, blue actually appears infrequently in nature. Perhaps the most desirable among naturally blue things is lapis lazuli, an ultramarine rock often laced with fool’s gold (i.e., the mineral pyrite). Lapis’s often exorbitant value was historically determined by the rarity of other sources for the unique pigment.
Australia’s satin bowerbirds decidedly prize blue. The males, themselves an inky purple-black, adorn their bowers with blue detritus—adding plastic bottle caps and other litter to blue shells, feathers and flowers. They “paint” their nests with berry juices and steal azure objects from rivals as they decorate these cribs designed to seduce females. But the avian bachelors often have little luck: Dozens of potential mates may check out the goods, but most will leave for bluer pastures without bestowing as much as a peck on the cheek.
Popular in ancient Middle Eastern and Egyptian funerary objects and jewelry, blue didn’t become a Western art fixture until after lapis lazuli was brought to a Venetian port around A.D. 1000. Soon the deep blue pigment ground from this semiprecious stone was so coveted and expensive that the Catholic Church all but cornered the market: During medieval times, blue appeared primarily in illuminated manuscripts and paintings of exalted figures, becoming, for example, the signature color of the Virgin Mary’s robes. As other sources and artificial dyes gradually became available, blue turned more secular.
Spanish painter Pablo Picasso later became closely associated with blue. After his friend and fellow artist Carlos Casagemas shot himself in a Paris café, Picasso descended into a funk and projected his depression onto canvas. His series of blue-tinted paintings, including Casagemas in His Coffin (1901), which depicts his dead comrade in queasy shades, became some of Picasso’s most famous works. His Blue Period (1901–1904) affirmed the color as a symbol of loss and despair. In 1971, when Joni Mitchell recorded an album chronicling love’s painful demise, she titled it Blue. She later painted a portrait of Picasso, which is not blue.
The music known as the blues evolved in the southern U.S. from songs African American slaves and prisoners sang to relieve tedium or to time the rhythm of labors, such as felling trees saw stroke by saw stroke. By the 1900s the blues had become a communal way to vent about constant toil, oppressive poverty and anything else a hard life brings, including lost love. “I got ramblin’ all on my mind / Hate to leave my baby, but you treats me so unkind,” goes seminal bluesman Robert Johnson’s “Ramblin’ on My Mind,” recorded in 1936.
The blues carved a deep groove into the record of American history, and many of its early performers became legends. Johnson allegedly sold his soul to the devil for guitar mastery. Huddie Ledbetter earned the moniker Lead Belly for taking buckshot to the gut—or perhaps for his prodigious moonshine intake. The blues gave way to rock and roll and permeated nearly every American popular music genre, but traditional blues is rarely heard today. Joni Mitchell bemoans the downfall of the music’s mythology in her 1976 song “Furry Sings the Blues,” belting, “Bourbon, laughter, ghosts, history falls / To parking lots and shopping malls.”
In 1973 American abstract expressionist Joan Mitchell completed the nonrepresentational blue-and-white painting Les Bluets. It may depict the essence of the cornflowers it is named for, or it may simply celebrate their color. Writer Lydia Davis has described her personal reaction to Les Bluets: “I was confronted with this experience of opacity.”
Joni was the Mitchell more popularly associated with blue, however; her 1971 folk album Blue is among the most acclaimed of the decade. Yet she may have had cause to envy her similarly named peer. When starting out as a singer-songwriter, Joni Mitchell considered music a pastime. She thought of herself, she has said, “as a painter derailed by circumstance.” Her intimate lyrics earned her a devoted following, and there is nothing opaque about Blue: When singer Kris Kristofferson heard it, he advised her to “keep something of yourself.”
Today Joni Mitchell’s artwork is a career footnote, while her confessional music endures. Megastar Taylor Swift, who writes similarly personal lyrics, cites Blue as her favorite album. But Swift chose Red as the title for her 2012 record, which expresses a variety of emotions, putting it at the opposite end of the spectrum from Mitchell’s consistently heartbreaking Blue.
The phrase blue devils apparently once referred to the terrifying hallucinations alcoholics experience in withdrawal. The expression was eventually shortened to the blues and came to encompass general despondency, also lending its name to a genre of African American folk music. True to its origins, the blues features lyrics replete with descriptions of melancholy and substance abuse. Gertrude “Ma” Rainey (a.k.a. the mother of the blues) wails, “I’ve been drinking all night, babe, and the night before,” on “Moonshine Blues” (1923). On “Whiskey Blues” (1948) Muddy Waters growls, “Well, I’ve been settin’ here drinkin’. I’m just as lonesome as a man can be.”
Jazz chanteuse Billie Holiday, who died from cirrhosis of the liver in 1959, sang that she “wants the world to know / just what her blues is all about,” in “Lady Sings the Blues” (1956). Maggie Nelson writes of this song, in her 2009 book Bluets, “As Billie Holiday knew, it remains the case that to see blue in deeper and deeper saturation is eventually to move toward darkness.” A few paragraphs later, after pondering how people have to overcome their “native triumphance” to commit suicide, Nelson considers drinking “every single drop of alcohol in my house.”
In Greek mythology, the centaur Chiron heals his arrow wound with a cornflower, a plant also known by its French name, bleuet (pronounced “BLUE-ay”). Maggie Nelson also looked to the bloom to cure her maladies. Her lyrical essay Bluets reflects on a failed romance and a close friend’s paralysis, in response to which Nelson immerses herself in images of the flower and its color. A favorite painting is Les Bluets, a triptych presenting thick, rough swathes of blue. Nelson surmises that its creator, Joan Mitchell, “chose her pigments for their intensity rather than their durability,” a decision that presages the work’s premature decay.
Nelson recounts her own dreams about an “abundance of cornflowers” and suggests the English name drains bluets of their romance. Her relationship to the flower recalls that of the German Romantic poet Novalis. In his unfinished novel Heinrich von Ofterdingen, Novalis describes being obsessed with a blue blossom he too saw in a dream: “I long to see the blue flower. I cannot rid my thoughts of the idea; it haunts me.” Novalis’s blue flower became an emblem of the Romantic (and romantic) yearning for the unattainable. As such, his blue likewise seems more intense than durable.
From lapis-drenched peacocks to jester-jacketed parrots, birds are among the most colorful of creatures. But they may once have been drab as dirt. According to a 2011 study conducted by researchers at Yale and Cambridge universities, as the eyesight of birds grew more acute over millions of years, their plumage became correspondingly kaleidoscopic. Copious color-receptive cells in their retinas allow birds to see prismatic gradations that fall beyond a human’s scope. A coauthor of the paper, Yale evolutionary ornithologist Richard Prum, notes, “We are color-blind compared to birds.”
This heightened spectral sensibility undoubtedly fuels the satin bowerbird’s courtship rituals, in which males create tiny blue-bedecked bungalows to impress females. The males’ feathers evolved to provide camouflage in shade and to shine iridescently in the sun; that may be why satin bowerbirds select bright locations to proudly display their collections. Viewed in avian hypervision, a bowerbird prancing and posing amid the blue trinkets in its love nest must be quite captivating. In Bluets Maggie Nelson writes, “When I see photos of these blue bowers, I feel so much desire that I wonder if I might have been born into the wrong species.”