"....indigo crossed class lines ... becoming the color of sailors and workers. With Napoleon it became the color of war. After the soldiers came the police pretty much the world over, and then, in one mighty crossover, indigo went from being the color of uniforms to becoming, in addition, the uniform of the anti- uniform "casual wear;' the jeans worn today by most of the people most of the time the world over, rich or poor."
Michael Taussig "Redeeming Indigo"
|Blue workers' smocks in paintings by Van Gogh (1888) and Cézanne (1896).|
In these two paintings, the blue workers' smocks are crucial agents in making visual and material contrasts. Van Gogh lovingly paints the old peasant Patience Escalier, a man of the earth of Provence, his hands every bit as worn from sun and work as his wrinkled face. The blue of his smock vibrates against the orange background, burning hot with the southern sun. Cézanne paints a worker's blue blouse up against an 18th century screen-- an aristocratic, exclusive blue tapestry. In this collage of blues is a pastoral fantasy of nature right behind a man whose presence speaks of the truly physical nature of work outside.
|Peasant Smock dyed blue with indigo.|
Before the late-nineteenth century invention of analine dyes, indigo was the best and truest blue. Production of indigo (formerly an expensive import from India) took off in French colonies in the 18th century, making this deep blue widely accessible. Although the term "blue collar" to denote manual labor seems to have arisen only in the 1920s, the long association of blue with work has held -- from the French bleu de travail to American denim-- indigo was the blue of labor.
|Georges Seurat, Little Peasant in Blue, 1882|
|Léon Fréderic, The Chalk Sellers, 1882–1883, detail|
|Norman Shepherd's Smock, 1950s,|
Linen and Cotton (source: ebay)
|Manet, Café Corner, 1878, Bleu de Travail jacket, France, 1940s.|
In the realist vocabulary which underwrites many of Cézanne and Van Gogh's images of rural life, blue materializes peasant form. Jean-François Millet's Sower, a revolutionary image of the French peasant, powerfully enfranchised in the wake of the 1848 revolution (which gave all male citizens the vote) strides across a plowed field, casting his seed widely. The indigo of his trousers and the red of his smock allegorize the French nation in the form of its rural people.
|Millet, The Sower, 1850, Boston mfa|
Millet's friend and biographer Alfred Sensier described it thus: "a young fellow of a wild aspect, dressed in a red shirt and blue breeches, his legs wrapped in wisps of straw, and his hat torn by the weather. "
|Millet, Grafting a Tree, 1855|
Images of the land-owning farmer also depicted peasant clothing in primary colors, especially red and blue. Critic Pierre Petroz noted of Peasant Grafting a Tree: "His pants are of a dull blue; although his knees have made a mark in them, there are few creases, as the fabric is thick and coarse. He wears wooden clogs. His stance, with one foot forward, gives his body stability, and permits his arms freedom of movement."
Son pantalon est d’un bleu terne; quoique la place des genoux y soit marquée, il fait peu de plis, comme toutes les étouffes épaisses et grossières; il est chaussé de sabots. Une jambe portée en avant donne au corps une assiette plus sûre, qui permet aux bras une plus complète liberté de mouvement.
Peasant costume is serviceable, coarse and lumpy as Petroz notes. The woman in Millet's painting, who holds the infant and watches the graft being made wears a long blue skirt, visible below the bulky blanket or shawl that wraps her middle.
Millet did not dress peasants as if they were Grecian goddesses as did his academic naturalist peers and followers. As an amateur ethnographer of the rural present, he collected common items of peasant costume, as Julia Cartwright described: "in one corner of the room lay a whole heap of blouses and aprons of every shade of blue — some of the deepest indigo, others bleached almost white from constant exposure to sun and air. Here, too, were handkerchiefs for the head — marmottes as they were called in Millet’s old home — cloaks and skirts of faded hues, more beautiful in his eyes than the richest stuffs."
|Millet, Study for Woman Baking Bread, c. 1853|
Millet's drawings, often preferred today to his finished paintings, show intense observation and attention to the material and character of clothing: the fall of an apron, for instance, in this sketch for the painting Woman Baking Bread.
It was material detail that engaged with the real. Clothing spoke volumes: a carefully mended, sun-faded blue dress, the hang of hard-worn pants —clothing that was as common and used up by rural labor as the bodies that had made it so.
|Woman Baking Bread|
Millet had a taste for the aesthetic of the worn and mended. Peasant mending of busted work clothing- from necessity alone- finds recent emulation in faux- tattered designer denim that pretend to Japanese Sashiko stitching.
|Millet, The Gleaners, detail.|
The Goncourts Brothers remarked in 1862 upon the way that Millet integrated peasant clothing to their forms and labor:
[i]t is prodigious the way Millet has caught the outline of the peasant woman, the woman of hard work and weariness, leaning over the ground and picking up clods of earth! He has made a rounded design, making the body into a bundle, with none of the provocative lines of the flesh of a woman; a body which poverty and toil have flattened out as if with a roller; a body which seems when it moves to be toil and weariness in motion; no hips, no breasts, a worker in a sheath, the color of which seems to come from the two elements in which she lives, brown of the earth, blue of the sky.
|Millet, Man with a Spade, 1855-58.|
|Pissarro, Shepherd and Women Washing Clothes at Montfoucault, 1881|
|Pissarro, Peasants in the Fields, Eragny, 1890, detail|
In the work of this artist, enamored by bright light, by the extreme heat of the afternoon (that past criticism treated as the violent work of a madman) comes the delicate sensibility of one who knows and expresses-- in a language of nuances-- the charm of rustic life."
...le regard le plus attentif fixé sur les paysans depuis Millet, et une conception toute differente de celle de Millet, un sens intime de la vie rurale, une vision nette de la vérité locale, de la particularité des allures, de la couleur des vêtements. C’est d’une fine rudesse, d’une malice tranquille. Chez l’artiste épris des vives lumières, des fortes chaleurs des après-midi, et que la critique d’hier a parfois traité en violent et en énergumène, il y a un délicat qui sait et qui exprime en un langage de nuances, le charme de la vie rustique.
Sensitivity to the wearing of blue clothing tells this story.
As in the image of Patience Escalier, Vincent Van Gogh painted peasant workers in blue. He wrote extensively of his specific color choices, often mapping out his paintings in letters to fellow artists.
|Vincent van Gogh, letter to Émile Bernard, Arles, 19 June 1888, Letter 7, page 1|
"Large field with clods of plowed earth, mostly downright violet.
"Field of ripe wheat in a yellow ocher tone with a little crimson.
"The chrome yellow 1 sky almost as bright as the sun itself, which is chrome yellow 1 with a little white, while the rest of the sky is chrome yellow 1 and 2 mixed, very yellow, then.
"The sower's smock is blue, and his trousers white. Square no. 25 canvas. There are many repetitions of yellow in the earth, neutral tones, resulting from the mixing of violet with yellow, but I could hardly give a damn about the veracity of the color. Better to make naive almanac pictures—old country almanacs, where hail, snow, rain, fine weather are represented in an utterly primitive way. The way Anquetin got his Harvest so well.
|Van Gogh, Peasant Plowing with Peasant Woman, 1884|
|Van Gogh, Peasant Binding Sheaves, 1889|
Years earlier, in 1885, he had mused on his understanding of the "naturalness" of this color in peasant clothing:
I am ... looking for blue all the time. Here the peasant's figures are as a rule blue. That blue in the ripe corn or against the withered leaves of a beech hedge - so that the faded shades of darker and lighter blue are emphasized and made to speak by contrast with the golden tones of reddish-brown - is very beautiful and has struck me here from the very first. The people here instinctively wear the most beautiful blue that I have ever seen.
It is coarse linen which they weave themselves, warp black, woof blue, the result of which is a black and blue striped pattern. When this fades and becomes somewhat discoloured by wind and weather, it is an infinitely quiet, delicate tone that particularly brings out the flesh colours.
Well, blue enough to react to all colours in which hidden orange elements are to be found, and discoloured enough not to jar.
Just like the blue/orange pallette of Patience Escalier, Van Gogh, when copying from Millet's prints of seasonal labors in the asylum at St.-Rémi (1889-90), re-painted his working peasants in blue.
|Millet/ Van Gogh, Noonday Rest.|
This blue/orange contrast of opposite pits the coolness of indigo against the sun burnt thatch of plants that were once green. A cooked and dried agriculture. The working body is coloristically the landscape's other.
|film stills from Hugo.|
Incidentally, Martin Scorcese's recent film Hugo uses just this color contrast (as a smart friend mentioned to me). Blue nostalgia.
More on indigo.