What Art History Tells Us about Ultra Violet, Pantone’s Color of the Year

Alexxa Gotthardt
Dec 7, 2017 11:16PM

Courtesy of Pantone.

For centuries, the color purple has been associated with greatness: immense power, big personalities, and artistic genius. Cleopatra and Julius Caesar swathed their palaces and their bodies with it. Impressionists like Claude Monet became so obsessed with the color, they were accused by critics of contracting “violettomania.” And then, of course, pop god Prince branded his funky, supremely iconoclastic music with deep, dewy violet—a mystical force he dubbed “purple rain.”

It’s these lofty qualities that color authority Pantone referenced Thursday when announcing its 2018 color of the year: Ultra violet. The company lauded the hue’s ability to communicate “originality, ingenuity, and visionary thinking that points us toward the future” in a press release, noting purple’s longstanding connection to “unconventionality” and “artistic brilliance.”

Indeed, nowhere is the creative and cultural influence of purple more clear than in a tour through the history of art, from ancient Roman frescoes to Pop art.

Antoine-François Callet, Louis XVI, King of France and Navarre (1754-1793), wearing his grand royal costume in 1779, 1789. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

Josef Albers
Palatial, 1965
Susan Sheehan Gallery

It begins in the first millennium B.C., when humans developed a pigment known as purpura or Tyrian purple. Sourced from a tiny shellfish called murex, it wasn’t easy to come by. More than 250,000 of the critters had to be offed in order to produce half an ounce of the color—just enough to dye a single toga.

As with most rare goods, purpura became expensive and valuable. Ancient Rome’s rich and famous, in particular—led by Julius Caesar—fell for the color. Caesar’s interest was stoked after a visit to Cleopatra’s lavish Egyptian palace, decorated with purple porphyry stone and sporting couches upholstered in purple fabric. Upon his return to Rome, Caesar declared that only he could wear togas dyed completely violet. The law became harsher under a later emperor, Nero—if someone disobeyed, they could be punished by death.

Subsequent emperors loosened their grip on purple, but the color maintained its association with power and luxury. The wall paintings and mosaics that decorated Roman villas of the era often employed the color to convey status. Byzantine rulers assumed a love of violet, too. A 547 A.D. mosaic cycle in the church of San Vitale in modern-day Ravenna, Italy, depicts emperor Justinian I draped head-to-toe in purple cloth; the courtiers that flank him wear more modest bands of the same fabric, suggesting their high rank. (It was the Byzantines who coined the term “born in the purple.”)

The Catholic church later adopted the color, and violet-robed priests began to crop up in painted portraits. The 18th-century French court followed suit: When Antoine-François Callet painted King Louis XVI in 1779, he depicted him in a deep plum coronation robe.

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.

Mark Rothko, Rothko Chapel, 1964–71. Photo by @ykcreative, via Instagram.  

Other radical 20th-century artists used purple to varying effects. Georgia O’Keeffe selected various shades of violet to create the deep folds of a flower in her 1926 painting Black Iris. Similar to the Impressionists, she didn’t seek to depict reality. Rather, she used color and form to convey more intangible forces—here, warmth, sensuality, and vigor.

20th-century British bad-boy painter Francis Bacon used purple liberally across various paintings of wailing and contorted bodies. In particular, he accented a series of screaming popes in violet. In Study after Velazquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X (1953), he covers his subject’s amethyst robes in aggressive markings, as if undermining the authority purple conveyed in the Catholic church.

Abstract Expressionist painter Mark Rothko also played with the color’s religious associations when he filled his magnum opus, the Rothko Chapel in Houston, Texas, with maroon, plum, and deep mauve canvases. Unlike Bacon’s figurative approach, however, Rothko focused on the soothing, meditative power of the violet spectrum. During the same era, James Turrell began experimenting with his ethereal, immersive Light and Space environments. Some he lit monochromatically with deep, diffused fuschia; the experience of entering these spaces has similarly been described as religious.  

Dan Alva
You Zig I Zag, 2016
Avant Gallery

Perhaps the most literal connection between art history and Pantone’s choice of ultra violet, however, comes with the advent of Pop art in the 1960s. Certainly, Andy Warhol’s screen-printed canvases sported the neon hue. But his friend and Factory superstar Isabelle Collin Dufresne literally became the shade. By 1967, she’d changed her name to Ultra Violet and wore purple hair, purple eyeshadow, and purple lipstick wherever she went. She joined a long line of creatives who not only harnessed the shape-shifting meaning of purple—from luxurious to radical to transcendent—but also added their own twist to the seductive hue.

Alexxa Gotthardt