Indigo or Is it?

Stele with Vishnu and Other Hindu Deities (India: Uttar Pradesh)

L-R: Stele with Vishnu and Other Hindu Deities, India: Uttar Pradesh, c. 1100, sandstone with indigo pigments, Norton Simon Art Foundation; Reckitt's Crown Blue

May 1, 2020

The surface of this beautifully carved sculptural relief of the Hindu god Vishnu stands out because of its rich blue hue, perhaps added as a devotional ritual many centuries after it was carved. This has always intrigued me, because I’ve seen that blue before on artifacts and sculpture from disparate cultures, including Native American regalia, East African effigies, objects from Papua New Guinea, and indigenous Australian rock art. Traditionally designated as “indigo pigment” in our archives, I wonder if this is yet another example of a 19th-century laundry aid like Reckitt’s Blue, having found its way around the globe as an inexpensive, easily traded cube of synthetic blue pigment. The practice of adding blue coloring, often mixed with starch in the wash to counteract the natural yellowing of white textiles, predates the 17th century and continues to this day. Stay tuned for possible future analysis.

John Griswold is the Conservator of the Norton Simon Museum, where he leads efforts to preserve and care for the Simon collections.