Prussian blue

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Under the Wave at Kanagawa, one of the most famous images in all of Japanese art; it makes extensive use of Prussian blue."

Prussian blue, also known as Berlin blue, is considered the world's first artificial (chemical) pigment; that is to say, it is a paint or printing ink not made directly from plant, mineral, or other natural materials. The pigment is used in some of the most iconic and famous ukiyo-e woodblock prints, including the "Great Wave Off Kanagawa" and many others by Hokusai and Hiroshige. Prussian blue was highly prized in Japan as a blue pigment which, unlike dayflower blue and many other vegetable pigments, did not fade or discolor when exposed to light or moisture.

Developed in Germany in the early 18th century, Prussian blue appears in a series of maps known as magiri-zu produced in Ryûkyû in 1737 to 1750;[1] these maps might represent the earliest use of the pigment in the (greater) Japanese archipelago.

Prussian blue was not widely used in mainland Japan until the 1830s, however, with a series of fan prints by Keisai Eisen from 1829 being perhaps the first to be printed entirely in Prussian blue (as ai-e, or "blue pictures") without any other colors.[2] Many of the most famous ukiyo-e images employing Prussian blue - such as Hokusai's "Great Wave," are from the 1830s.

Later in the 19th century, Prussian blue came to be used as an artificial additive in green tea exported to the United States, in order to deepen the color of the tea.[3]


  1. Gallery labels, Ryukyu/Okinawa no chizu ten, Okinawa Prefectural Museum, Feb 2017.
  2. "Tongue in Cheek: Erotic Art in 19th-Century Japan," Honolulu Museum of Art, exhibition website, accessed 1 Dec 2014.
  3. Robert Hellyer, "1874: Tea and Japan's New Trading Regime," Asia Inside/Out: Changing Times, Harvard University Press (2015), 190.