Short History of Cobalt Blue

Also known as Thénard’s blue, cobalt blue has appeared on objects, frescos, ceramics and glass since antiquity. Painters and painting enthusiasts today know it as a distinctive and warm yet deep complement to ultramarine, phthalo, manganese and other blues.

The pigment’s nickname comes from chemist Louis Jacques Thénard, who discovered a stable version of the material in 1802. Before that time, artists using cobalt worked with the appropriately named Smalt, an unstable pigment derived from cobalt ore and developed during the 16th century. Little is known about the production behind earlier appearances of the color.

Independent of process, cobalt blue has been popular among figurative and landscape painters such as Vincent Van Gogh, Maxfield Parrish and Giambattista Tiepolo. Contemporary installation artist Eve Laramee even covered the floor of an entire room with Cobalt-colored glass in her piece Requiem for a Blue Field. Beyond fine art, the color is used in ophthalmology, both as a filter in ophthalmoscopes and as a dye used to detect corneal ulcers and scratches.

Vincent Van Gogh’s The Yellow House has received notice from critics about its use of Cobalt. (image courtesy of

What do you think of Cobalt blue? Tell us in the comments.

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