Beyond the Sea

Michelangelo left paintings unfinished because he couldn´t afford it. Johannes Vermeer sent his family to the brink of ruin since he bought it anyway. Ultramarine is the most sought-after, exclusive pigment ever found on earth.

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Clyfford Still Ph 247 from 1951.
Michelangelo left paintings unfinished because he couldn´t afford it. Johannes Vermeer sent his family to the brink of ruin because he bought it anyway. Ultramarine is the most sought-after, exclusive pigment ever found on earth.

The 15th century artist Cennino Cennini wrote in his artist´s handbook: “Ultramarine blue is a glorious, lovely and absolutely perfect pigment beyond all the pigments.” Derived from the lapis lazuli a semi precious gemstone, the pigment was, in the past, considered more precious than gold. It was often used for the robes of the Virgin Mary, and symbolized holiness and humility. For centuries, the lone source of ultramarine was an arid strip of mountains in northern Afghanistan, the Sar-e-Sang Mine.

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The name Ultramarine comes from the Latin ultramarinus, literally “beyond the sea”.
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Chinese lapis lazuli carved vase.

Lapis lazuli first appeared as a blue pigment in the 6th century, in cave paintings in Zoroastrian and Buddhist temples in Afghanistan, near the most famous source of the mineral. Around 700 years later, the pigment emerged in Venice by the hands of Egyptian traders, and soon became the most sought-after color in medieval Europe. For centuries, the cost of lapis lazuli rivaled the price of gold. Given its hefty price tag, the color was reserved for only the most important figures, such as the Virgin Mary, and the most lucrative commissions, to decorate churches.

The Madonna at Prayer by Giovanni Battista Salvi, il Sassoferrato (1609-1685, Rome).
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Pietro Perugino The Virgin and Child with an Angel.

Ultramarine blue is a glorious, lovely and absolutely perfect pigment beyond all the pigments.

Cennino Cennini
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Titius Bacchus and Ariadne.
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The turban of the Girl with a Pearl Earring by Johannes Vermeer is painted with a mixture of ultramarine and lead white, with a thin glaze of pure ultramarine over it.

Ultramarine remained an extremely expensive pigment until a synthetic ultramarine was invented in 1826. Two years prior, the Société d’Encouragement in France had offered a reward of six thousand francs to anyone who could develop a synthetic alternative to ultramarine. The new artificial blue became known as French Ultramarine.

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The deep blue color pigment was originally made by grinding lapis lazuli gemstone into a powder.
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According to legend, Michelangelo left his painting The Entombment unfinished because he could not generate the funds to buy ultramarine blue.
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Painters of the past might have suffered a stroke if they would have seen how artists such as Yves Klein would apply ultramarine by the bucketful.
In June 2016, lapis lazuli from Afghanistan was named a conflict mineral by the organization Global Witness.