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

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.”

purple-web

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.”

 

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UV Painting Jason Barre

 

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.

Antoine-François Callet, Louis XVI, King of France and Navarre (1754-1793), wearing his grand royal costume in 1779, 1789. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.
Palatial
Josef AlbersPalatial1965Susan 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.

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

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Author: James Presley

I am an artist and I love it. What do I have to do to live from what I love? I'm not dying or cutting me bloody ear off, that's for sure.

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