Pamela L. Sumners

A BRIEF HISTORY OF BLUE

When Neanderthal stumbled color-blind from his cave

he had no word for sea or sky, knew only cave-black,

blood-red, and later, moon-yellow, grass-green.

Long after he bumbled into homo erectus, his poor

poet, the best of the age, could only call the sea

wine-red. (Homer should feel vindicated as he sips

tsipouro, St. John the Divine revealing the sea will

return to red, Yeats’ mournful blood-dimmed tide.)

“Blue” had not tumbled from troglodyte or psalmist’s lips.


Blue was undeterred by man’s unimagining It.


Blue saw itself through the Iron Age, carrying itself

like a queen dusting off rust from her bustle. Blue

made itself Phoenician and stowed away in the tabernacle

of Ahab, pronouncing itself a prophet while Israel

called it a whore, an abomination, blue, blue Jezebel

resurrected in Revelation straight from First and

Second Kings, one of the seductive and flirty things

Yahweh saw as an impious interloper on his turf.

Ahab and Joram left bleeding, Jehu came for Jezebel.

She did not flee. She painted her eyes blue-black 

kohl, dressed and braided her hair, and long stayed

at the window for an augury.  She dressed her part.

The eunuchs defenestrated her, but blue blue Jezebel,

window-gazing, queenly, saw the sky and was unafraid.


Blue plotted its odyssey, slithering into Pharoah’s land.


The Egyptians, not color-blind, saw blue, coveted with their

Anubian eyes urns, vessels, Memphian tchotchkes, fleshpots.

They had seen blue, and they wanted more. So they ground

their slaves to dust in crushing limestone to mix with azurite

or malachite. Tura limestone, block of the Pyramids, ferried

from the quarry across the River Nile, over 400 miles upriver

to Aswan, heated with the blue stones to a melting point hotter

than a crematory kiln. This they crushed to powder thickened

with egg white to make a glaze, cuprorivaite, to festoon the

Pharoahs’ tombs. Knowing their blue would outlast even the

Greco-Roman Age would not satisfy them. Had they known their

Egyptian Blue would glow under fluorescent lights in labs

excavating the history of blue one day, they still would have

felt the ache of an empty vessel whose blue had been consumed.

They wanted more. They plumbed the mountains of Afghan

for lapis lazuli to adorn the bejeweled head of Horus. The

Buddhists of Bamiyan called it True Blue, and painted with it

until the Christian traders came in the 1300s to christen it

ultramarinus¬—“beyond the sea” of Homer’s visioning, and 

shipped it away to Padua, Rome, Naples, Venezia, Genoa,

to hallelujahs and papal choruses. Blue conquered Florence.


Blue flourished its silken brushstrokes for nobles and popes.


In the House of Medici, the Blessed Virgin’s gown glowed gaudy

with the price. Lapis lazuli! a blue so blue it surpassed the sounding

sea, was coveted above gold. It was so dear, it is said, that Michelangelo’s

“The Entombment,” was derailed, decommissioned, desacralized for want

of it. A later artist, bewitched, plunged his family into penury

to pay for its shimmer. Still a century later, a French chemist dared invent

a synthetic lapis, sadly too late for the destitute Johannes Vermeer.


Lapis lazuli, ultramarine, was cheekily renamed French Ultramarine.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves in the genealogy of blue.


Long before French Ultramarine, the Eighth and Ninth Century

Chinese dynasties prized cobalt blue. But it was dear, and the

Yuan and Tang dynasties traveled all the way to Persia for it,

groveling and grubbing over the saber-toothed merciless mountains.

Once again, the French went to work in the chemistry labs,

making it cheap to give us cobalt hues for Renoir and Van Gogh, to flavor

Maxfield Parrish’s Gibson Girls swinging against the sky or lounging

against Ionian columns looming over the beyond Agean sea, keeping

tabs on something in the distance, a starry, starry night, a boy in

silk breeches, the ephemeral color of a Mediterranean wind.

The French also learned you can roast cobalt with tin oxide and arrive

at cerulean, declared by Pantone to be the “Color of our New 

Millennium” and “the color of the future.” But the French aren’t all that

They didn’t colonize the entire continent of blue. That left room

for nationalizing it. But Blue doesn’t like to think too much

about its extended navy period. It finds it a tad dull, depressing.



The British Royal Navy gave us the eponymous shade, and there were

Davy Jones and Admiral Nelson and of course Gilbert and Sullivan and 

after them the Village People, because navy needs some levity. All

the best presidents wore navy, were sometimes even navy secretaries,

or a PT boat captain swimming with a mate’s life jacket strings in his mouth,

hauling us all on his glistening back, by his glistening, grimacing teeth.


The Germans weren’t going to let everyone else monopolize military blue.


Johann Jacob Diesbach hunched at his desk, spasm of a new red throbbing

in his head. He may have been drunk, or given his elbow a bump 

that mixed potash with animal blood. So now we have the Prussian blue

of Picasso’s Blue Period and Hokusai’s epic big wave. Light-sensitive,

it’s the perfect hue for blueprints. We’ve even made of it a cure for metal 

poisoning, all from a German tremor.  Fitting for cyanide-testing blue.


Blue calmly studies, now that it has blueprints for its march to hegemony.


The blue-bereted French retaliate again in the chemistry lab. A guy 

named Klein, a Frenchman, trademarked a color he called International

Klein Blue, describing blue as a color “beyond dimensions,” like the

Christian traders’ description of ultramarine: “beyond the sea.”


But blue is red white and blue, too. The Americans would have their share.


The slaves, the chemists, the lab rats, the periodic turners of the tables

of the elements are the protagonists here that propel all the Picassos.

Blue is a coil that must be unfurled in laboratories, distilled to essence,

transformed through alchemy. Yin Mn Blue is a periodic table of a color: 

yttrium, indium, manganese, discovered by a tenured professor sponging

his grad assistant’s talents in searching for new materials to help us in the 

American war against Chinese electronics. We discovered no sleeping dynasties, 

no Tang court favorites excelling in poetry and porcelain paints. “We” found a new 

color, and being Americans, sold the patent to Crayola for blue-chip royalties.


To summarize: Blue is res ipsa loquitur.  It doesn’t need your petty descriptions.

Blue is beyond. Blue manumits patents that transcend borders. You can’t own blue.


Blue endures. Blue is the Classic Pantone of 2020, revving its throwback muscle-

car engine, forming the backdrop for Velvet Elvis paintings. Blue adapts. Blue

is the New Millennium almost a quarter century gone, reaching back to sleeping

Tangs, Yuans, Van Goghs, Rameses, Medicis, dissolute Vermeers, the resolute

sadness of Jezebel at the window, a Crayola narthex, a wave, a stone rolled

from Christ’s tomb, Homer’s loss for words, a funeral dirge for pharaohs, eternal

blue, the Blue of the Future, COVID blue, Black Lives Matter Blue, thin blue line, 

the Memphis of everywhere, a cast-off rib bone with a Beale Street saxophone. 


Blue is blue is beyond the sea beyond words and Blue is


Pamela Sumners' work has been published or recognized by about 30 journals or publishing houses in 2018-20 in the US and abroad. A 2018 Pushcart nominee, she was selected for both the 2018 and 2019 64 Best anthologies. Her first chapbook, Finding Helen, traces her mother's mental illness and institutionalization in Tuscaloosa's infamous Bryce facility and is forthcoming from Seven Kitchens Press. Her first full collection, Ragpicking Ezekiel's Bones, is expected from UnCollected Press this summer (COVID willing). A native Alabamian, she now lives in St. Louis.