Re-enactors, artists and figure painters by and large seem to get the four shades of blue used by the French Army in the Napoleonic wars into something of a muddle. Four primary shades of blue used were Bleu Imperiale [with it seems some degree of variance between cloth manufacturers, and perhaps the way the cloth was made, and the cloth itself], Bleu Clair, Bleu de Ciel and Bleu Celeste. These light shades of blue are all in most cases considered as one colour, Sky Blue. What we show here is that Sky Blue or Bleu de Ciel was not a light blue colour, and that the colour re-enactors and artists used to show this colour was actually Celestial Blue or in French Bleu Celeste.
All the blue colours were Indigo derived. In the 1st Empire from Woad [Pastel in French] was mixed with a percentage of Indigo, of a ratio of 256g of Indigo to 100kg of woad. Woad contains indigotin, but at a a weaker concentration to indigotin derived from other plants. A variety of plants have provided indigo throughout history, but most natural indigo was obtained from those in the genus Indigofera. The primary commercial indigo species in Asia was true indigo (Indigofera tinctoria, also known as I. sumatrana). A common alternative used in the relatively colder subtropical locations such as Japan’s Ryukyu Islands and Taiwan is Strobilanthes cusia. In Central and South America, the two species grown are I. suffruticosa (añil) and dyer’s knotweed (Polygonum tinctorum), although the Indigofera species yield more dye. In Napoleonic France woad was primarily grown around Albi, Turin and Florence, selling the dye at 18 to 20 francs per kg under a set tariff introduced in 1791. The cost of obtaining Indigo dye is why the French army became dressed in un dyed cloth uniforms for a period in 1806 and 1807.he French war ministry laid down clear regulations on cloth colour and cloth quality. This was introduced 23 September 1807. Each mill/cloth supplier had to provide to the war ministry a length of cloth 1 aunes [119c,] wide by 19 aunes [20meters] for the cloth quality to be checked and quality of dyed colour to be checked over the entire length of the fabric, before the war ministry would order the cloth. The war ministry had a list of approved contractors and set prices for cloth type and colour. This was adhered to throughout the empire. Checking cloth quality was the role of Inspectors of Review and War Commissioners. 28 September 1811 a manufacture was ‘disciplined’ for trying to sell to the army poor quality cloth with a bad dye, 12 November 1811, the same occurred to a different suppluier. For example l’entrepeneur Bischwiller supplied 44,000 meters of biege cloth, 38,000 meters of bleu imperiale cloth, 20,000 meters of scarlet cloth. Each length of cloth was 19 aunes, and each length had been checked by a War Commissioner as meeting government standards. The War commissioner had to check the dye colour and also count the number of ends [threads] to make sure the cloth was of the required standard. Yes colour could vary between batches of dye and mills, but overall the colour of cloth was very well regulated. With blue cloth and scarlet, the colours dyed in say 1811 are the same in 2015 less dirt. Quality of finish of the cloth, and the selection of wool fibres, and the way in which the cloth was dyed, affects colour. So a lot of factors to consider. But the shade of blue an item is now is pretty much the colour it was when new.
The colour blue was created by the length of time the cloth or yarn was in the vat and how old the vat of dye was. Cloth was dyed in two ways. For high quality cloth used by the middle and upper classes, Generals and the Imperial Guard, the yarn was dyed to the required colour before the cloth was woven. For the lower classes and the soldiers of the Line, the cloth was dyed once it was made. The yarn used in this high grade fabrics contained a percentage of imported Spanish marano wool, mixed with high quality French produced yarn. This high grade cloth was produced in the Elbeuf region. Dyeing the yarn before weaving gave a better quality of colour, but it meant that a mill had to produce minimum quantities of cloths of different colours, where as the mills producing cloth that was dyed later, could produce a cheaper product as the looms produced a natural cloth, using yarn which was not as well sorted or selected as the higher grade fabric. This coarser fabric was known as Drap de Lodeve, and was it seems the ‘bog standard’ army cloth. The better quality yarn and finish on the cloth would also reflect the way in which the dye was taken up into the yarn fibres, so the same dye on a high grade superfine would look different to the same dye on a much lower grade and coarser fabric. Of importance to this study, cloth once dyed with Indigo, does not fade [darken or lighten] it is a fixed colour. Bar 200yrs of dirt accumulation, the colour of the cloth in 2015 is the same as when made in 1815. All our visual colour matches were made from interior surfaces of garments, behind linings, so a colour lacking 200years of grime could be exposed.
But what where the four colours of Blue used in the Empire?
Thanks to the late Roual Brunnon, we had the opportunity of being able to compare provenanced examples of Napoleonic uniforms as well as to take cloth samples away from the museum collections for further study. In this way we have been able to make visual matches, under natural light or the four shades of blue, as well as take samples to be analysed to determine the cloths actual shade, and likely dye. This ground breaking research has allowed us to define exactly what the four shades of blue were. Below we have two images of Bleu de Ciel cloth. This colour, Bleu de Ciel was used as the facing cloth of the Carabibnier regiments. However re-enactors and artists show the use of Bleu Celeste, which was we will see is very much a different colour.
Having defined now Bleu de Ciel, we look at Bleu Celeste- the uniform colour of the 10th Hussards, and the facing colour of the 5th Line Lancers and 16th Chasseurs a Cheval.
We can see under natural light how dark the Bleu Imperiale looks, also the Bleu de Ciel compared to the Bleu Celeste. The shade of Bleu Celeste here is an exact visual match to the interior of a pair of pantalons for the 9e Hussars preserved at the Musee de l’Armee. Modern days artists, and artists in the Napoleonic epoch, struggled to get the colour correct in their images. Vernet and his studio in his paintings for the Bardin regulations of 1812 consistently get the colour of Bleu de Ciel and Bleu Celeste confused, and show both colours as being the same colour, and far lighter in colour than in reality. This new ground breaking research is able to correct artist errors and show what Napoleonic cloth colours actually were, as opposed to what artists think they are. This is very important to both re-enactors and artists, so that they can depict regiments with the correct colours.
The fourth shade of Blue was Bleu Clair, a colour unique to the 9e Hussars. Many re-enactors and artists show the facings of this regiment as Bleu Celeste, when infact as the 1803 and 1812 make clear the facing colour and colour of the Pelisse was Bleu Clair. The pantalons were Bleu Cleleste. Visual match of two dolmans from the 9e Hussards at the Musee at Tarbes under natural light allows us to present the image below.
It can be made rapidly apparent that Bleu Clair is a bridging colour between Bleu de Ciel and Bleu Imperiale. We can also see, how markedly a different colour it is to Bleu Celeste. Again the Bleu Imperiale looks blackish or dark blue.Under bright natural light it is easily apparent how blue in tone Bleu Imperiale actually is. Of note, the Bleu Clair is still markedly different to Bleu de Ciel, but not by the same degree as under natural light shown earlier.
As I said at the start of this page, the French used four shades of blue. Well not quite, Bleu Celeste Fonce was used by the 1e Hussard according to the 1803 and 1812 regulations. Extant items appear as a dirty shade of Bleu Celeste. The difference could be due to the colour of the base yarn, the age of the dye vat and length of time in the vat. However, it does seem a darker, dirtier shade of Bleu Celeste existed, Bleu Celeste Fonce.
A sixth shade of blue was Bleu Celeste Melange dit gris de fer. This cloth will be discussed in a later post. A seventh was Bleu Barbeau. This colour will also be discussed as our research progresses.
To recap, for the first time since 1815, we have been able to identify and replicate five shades of blue used by the French army of the Napoleonic period. Re-enactors and artists take note, Bleu de Ciel [sky blue] is a mid blue, a very rich colour, which in the majority of cases, artists show as the paler Bleu Celeste [celestial blue]. Sky blue is not sky blue in colour, that is Bleu Celeste.
So the next time you see Carabiniers in paintings, at re-enactments or as model soldiers, and they are faced with a light blue colour, this is wrong. They had a wonderful rich blue colour. When you see re-enactors of the 9th Hussars with light blue facings, pantalon and pelisse, just remember what colours they actually were. The 9e Hussars had Bleu de Ciel facings, and Pelisse and Bleu Celeste leg wear- two very different colours.
We are able to supply all five shades of Blue fabric to re-enactors, figure painters and artists who want to have the correct shades of blue as opposed to what we think the colours actually were. This demonstrates the importance of original and innovative research.