Accessible Art History
History of Color: Purple
Welcome back to the Accessible Art History Blog! For today’s post, I am continuing my series on the history of color. This time, it’s all about purple! It is a regal color with a fascinating history! So to learn more, keep on reading!
Before we get started, let’s break down the color itself. Purple is a blend of red and blue. It is often used interchangeably with violet, but there is a slight difference. Purples have more red in the blend, versus violets containing more blue.
The first use of purple in art is found in prehistoric caves! One example of this is the Pech Merle cave in France, dating from between 25,000-16,000 BCE! Early humans would blend manganese and hematite powder to create pigments that would be used to paint animals, hand prints and outlines, and geometric shapes.
In Ancient Greece, purple became highly prized. This is because it was incredibly difficult to make. In the ancient Phoenician city of Tyre (now located in modern day Lebanon), a technique was developed to create purple dye. It was named for the city and called Tyrian purple. The process involved opening the shells of thousands of Bolinus brandaris snails. Then, the snail’s mucus would be exposed to the sun. After a whi
le, it turned a vibrant, reddish purple that adhered to fabric incredibly well. However, it would take about 250,000 snails to make a single ounce of dye! Even today, archaeological excavations are still uncovering mounds of discarded snail shells.
Because of this tedious process, Tyrian purple was extremely expensive. This is how the color became associated with the noble class and royalty, they were simply the only ones that could afford it! In fact, 4th century BCE historian Theopompus wrote that, "Purple for dyes fetched its weight in silver at Colophon”. !
Tyrian purple was used up until the end of the 15th century when the Byzantine empire fell to the Ottoman Empire. In fact, this is what forced the Catholic Church to change the cardinals uniforms to red, there wasn’t any purple left!
In China, purple dye was also used for clothing. But, it was made with a plant, purple gromwell, instead of snails. Interestingly, purple wasn’t as highly prized in the East as it was in the West. It was seen as a secondary color, but was still used in clothing and in art.
It wasn’t until 1856 that a synthetic alternative was discovered. That year, eighteen-year-old British chemistry student William Henry Perkin was trying to make synthetic quinine to help treat malaria. However, instead, he ended up creating mauveine, which he shortened to mauve. It became an immediate hit, especially after Queen Victoria wore a dress dyed with it! With the rise of the Industrial age, purple finally became accessible to everyone because it could be produced cheaply and on a large scale!
As I discussed early, purple has long symbolized royalty due to its exclusive status. However, it does symbolize other things too! For example, it is often seen as one of the most creative colors! This is because it is a combination of two opposing colors - vivacious red and calming blue. The combination allows for both sides of the emotional spectrum to be accessed. Finally, the lighter shades of purple, such as lavender, are often used to symbolize femininity and delicacy.
Purple has a fascinating and regal history! Make sure to keep an eye out for the final installment of this series, when I cover orange!
Bolinus brandaris snail. CC 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons
11th century Byzantine Robe. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons
Lady Agnew of Lochnaw, 1892 by John Singer Sargent, Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons