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The Most Expensive Color

August 28, 1994| From the essay, "Blue," in Alexander Theroux's "The Primary Colors":

Blue was always the most expensive pigment for painters, meant, first of all, for supernatural beauty, perfection, glory. The goldlike flecks of pyrite crystals in lapis lazuli have often been compared to stars in the sky. (A certain magic attaches to lapis: It is always supposed to be fingered when reciting Chapter 26 of the Egyptian Book of the Dead.) Imagine what those rich delphinium-dark blues, never mind the use of matching gold, cost Duccio and DaConegliano and Fra Lippo Lippi and the Lorenzettis! Imagine the cost to Raphael, to Titian, to Giovanni Bellini simply to dip into that blue for the robes of those Madonnas! What niggardliness wouldn't be forgiven in places where its application could be avoided? What hectoring not understood when students wasted it? Penny-pinching painters squeezed the very last dabs out of that pigment. An artificial ultramarine was generally used in the 19th Century, although that was not always the case. While painting a mural commissioned and paid for by the university in the Oxford Union, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, working with William Morris and Burne-Jones, Pre-Raphaelite painters all, knocked over an entire potful of lapis lazuli, which surely must have cost a fortune, leaving a huge, beautiful, useless pool of dark blue leaking into the floor. The committee in charge of paying their expenses, which was staggered by the bill they ran up for soda water alone, almost died!

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