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Blue: The History of a Color. Hardcover – October 1, 2001
"Rebound" by Kwame Alexander
Don't miss best-selling author Kwame Alexander's "Rebound," a new companion novel to his Newbery Award-winner, "The Crossover,"" illustrated with striking graphic novel panels. Pre-order today
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"A miracle of poetry in the midst of academic rigidity."--Télérama
". . . a rich volume, intelligently illustrated. . . . With sure-footed scholarship, trenchant opinions, Michel Pastoureau goes beyond a perfunctory visit: he makes us realize the importance of this material and avoids the errors of a number of other historians."--Le Monde
". . . a delicious mix of erudition and lighthearted fun."--Livres
"Pastoureau's text moves us through one fascinating area of activity after another. . . . The jacket, cover and end-papers of this luscious book are appropriately blue; its double-columned text breathes easily in the space of its pages; it is so well sewn it opens flat at any place; and fascinating, aptly chosen color plates, not confined to the title color, will please even those eyes denied the good luck of being blue."--William Gass, Los Angeles Times Book Review
"Blue is both prettily produced and whimsically enjoyable."--Julian Bell, Times Literary Supplement
"Michel Pastoureau takes us into territory that could be made to feel impossibly dense and absurdly specialized. To his credit, the tour is brisk and challenging."--John Loughery, Washington Post Book World
"A generous, gorgeous book full of nearly 100 historical and artistic
plates, all illustrating the meaning and role of the color blue in Western history. . . . Pastoureau has created something rare: a coffee table book that is also a good read. And not just a good read, but a compelling read."--Brian Bouldrey, Chicago Tribune
"Blue . . . is confident, stylish, well-turned out. . . . The book's sapphire glow will grace the most discriminating coffee tables."--Jane Gardam, Spectator
"This beautifully illustrated book is well written and informative, and makes an important contribution to the social history of art."--Choice
"In this beguiling and beautiful mixture of art book and social history, the distinguished French scholar shows how the rarest of all colors became the commonest."--Emma Hagestadt and Boyd Tonkin, The Independent Magazine
From the Inside Flap
"Michel Pastoureau paints a massive canvas in which the history of one color becomes the history of culture itself. This is a study not of color as mere matter but as idea--presenting thousands of years of thinking in blue."--Michael Camille, author of The Medieval Art of Love and Glorious Visions"Michel Pastoureau brilliantly uses the shifting meanings of blue to challenge a whole spectrum of assumptions about color and its symbolic value. . . . Thanks to this study, which is certain to become a classic, blue will never look the same again."--Jori Finkel and Jonathon S. Keats
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Pastoureau's work is chronologically ordered, and revolves around the central idea that blue was ignored for much of mankind's early history, until its faith started to change around the twelfth and the thirteen century for a number of ideological and technical reasons. According to this hypothesis, blue then suffered a radical transformation for good which enabled it to achieve the well known status of being the West's favorite color that we know today.
His prose is elegant and engaging, the translation is flawless and supporting pictures are carefully chosen to ensure the reader's commendation. I would, however, point out two weak points in the book:
1) It can be immediately appreciated that Pastoureau's historical expertise is at his best on the period covering from the Late Middle Ages to probably the seventeenth century (this is an achievement of its own, however). I found his command of relevant primary sources impeccable and his ideas strongly supported by the latter. As the book progresses, tough, the analysis becomes coarser, more speculative and less supported by historical research (though not less appealing, for sure). As a consequence, the text has a somewhat 'uneven' feeling in terms of depth. Analysis concerning the eighteenth century strays much from its original purpose, and the French Revolution simply occupies much of his thoughts (this is where Francophilia becomes the most obvious and I'm sure this particular section is what secured the arrogance claim by other reviews).
2) Color is a social construction. Pastoureau strongly advocates this idea throughout the book, which is also one of his most compelling arguments. Ironically, his strongest idea also contributes to what could be perceived as an undermining of his own arguments in the final chapters, where he simply slips the possibility that it might all be too subjective to tell for sure.
Overall, none of this should be upheld as a major argument to dismiss his work, a product of the most acute and distinctive French critical tradition. A fine book that must not be missed.
For millions of years, the major colors for artistic expression were Black-White-Red. Ancient tales such as "Little Red Riding Hood", "Snow White", and "The Fox and the Crow" reflect this primary triad. The Romans considered blue an inferior color, especially since the Celts up North had discovered the leaves from the Woad plant could be made into a beautiful blue "pastel" suitable for body painting. The liturgal colors of the Catholic Church date from Roman times and are red-white-black (green was added later). However, at some point between the time the Romans lost Europe and the Catholic Church reentered recorded history, blue became associated with Mary the mother of Christ. When Abbe Suger built St. Denis, blue began to rival red for supremacy within the church, although blue never became a vestment color. When St. Louis built his Chapel and the Capet family became the rulers of France with Mary as their patron, the fleur de lis on a blue background became the family standard and the flag of France (fleur de lis = lily of Mary, although it may be a blue flag or iris).
No sooner had blue become THE color of colors, than the Protestants (Pastoureau calls them "Chromoclasts") demanded everything be turned black to reflect sin and penance. After they smashed a few thousand church windows, these reformers, who have been linked to capitalism, turned everything else black -- from telephones to automobiles. As Henry Ford once said, the customer can have any color he wants as long as it's black. Black went on to became the dress of high society--from stove pipe hats to tuxedoes to the little black dress.
During the Reformation, red and white had been dismissed by the Protestants but the shot heard round the world gave them a second chance as the new red-white-blue and blue-white-red flags led to military pants and coats in similar colors. But red and white were a dismal failure as they made targets of their wearers. Blue blends into the horizon so it has lasted longer as a battle garment. Although jungle fatigues and black commando suits are more often than not seen on modern battlefields, mess dress is still blue-white-red for many, and UN soldiers wear fleur-de-lis blue helmets. Blue eventually replaced black on the social front as descendents of the "Puritans" gave up black frocks for navy blue blazers and jeans.
Pastoureau covers iconography, iconology, symbolism, sociology, ethnology, the economic aspects of weaving, dyeing, and manufacture, and a host of other topics associated with the color blue. The book is incredibly rich in detail but far too short, and in the end it raises more questions than it addresses. Pastoureau points to many historical sources that have yet to be translated or fully examined, and art history majors looking for a thesis subject would be well advised to check out this book.
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All the links between blue and the other colors in the western way of thinking since the Middles Ages...Read more