Purple became more accessible after teenage chemist William Henry Perkin accidently discovered a synthetic recipe for the pigment in 1856. He’d begun experimenting with coal tar to combat malaria when he noticed a pretty residue lining his instruments. Perkin called it mauve, and the shade quickly became the century’s “it” color for clothing, furniture, and even dog collars. One English journal, Punch, dubbed the craze for this new purple “Mauve Measles.”
Some of the era’s most revolutionary painters proceeded to catch the purple bug, too. Monet, in particular, championed the color in his Impressionist canvases. During the late 1800s and early 1900s, his practice was rooted in an in-depth study of the effects of light and shadow on color. He believed that violet was able to harness the dimensionality of shadow better than black and used the color with abandon. “I have finally discovered the true color of the atmosphere,” he once noted. “It is violet. Fresh air is violet.”
His enthusiasm rubbed off on his Impressionist peers, and soon the group’s penchant for the hue was being described as “violettomania,” a purported symptom of hysteria. Supporters of the Impressionists, however, believed they had “an acute perceptual facility that allowed them to see ultraviolet light at the extreme edge of the spectrum, invisible to others’ eyes,” as Stella Paul explains in her book Chromophilia: The Story of Color in Art.