Magenta matters

Magenta dye blocks. Science Museum.

I’m always fascinated by Pantone’s colour of the year and, perhaps this year more than ever, in the context of my current thinking about the aesthetic and historical implications of particular shades and hues for our Allover club.  Pantone’s chosen colour of 2023 is Viva Magenta 18-1750, an intriguing, purple-ish red, or red-ish purple, which, Pantone argues, “presents a balance between warm and cool.” But how does Viva Magenta capture the particular spirit of the moment? According to Pantone, in its series of slick and impressive presentations introducing the “Magentaverse”, Viva Magenta is is a colour that suggests a “verve for life, “connects us to original matter” and is “rooted in the primordial . . . invoking the forces of nature.” Colour is, as Pantone’s Leatrice Eiseman states in her introduction to the launch of Viva Magenta, an extremely powerful force, that can instantly connect an appreciative audience to a wide range of cultural values and meanings. But what exactly is the substance of the “original matter” — the meanings and the values —  to which we are connected via Viva Magenta

One thing that particularly interests me about the “natural,” “primordial,” meanings that Pantone projects onto Viva Magenta is that they are actually the precise opposite of the way the shade was understood, when it was first introduced and named a little over 160 years ago.  Indeed, rather than being linked to ideas of the natural and the organic, Magenta was originally firmly associated with what was synthetic and artificial.  To understand why, we must return to June 4th 1859,  when a violent battle was being fought in a small Lombardian town between the Austrian troops under Hungarian nobleman, Ferencz Gyulai, and the allied forces of Napoleon III’s French empire, in support of Italian unification. The French secured a narrow victory at this notoriously bloody encounter in which more than 6000 Austrian troops were killed in the hand-to-hand combat of swords and bayonets. John Ruskin wrote in the Scotsman of the horror of the battle’s aftermath, with the corpses of “men . . . lying . . .  in the form of torn flesh and shattered bones among the rice marshes of the Novarese.” A few months later, the battle had been commemorated in the name of a brand new synthetic dye, whose rich, purplish-reds were meant to suggest solidarity with the Italian cause, and the hard-won victory at the small town of Magenta. 

Magenta silk stockings, knitted for London’s International Exhibition of 1862, at which aniline dyed samples were described as possessing colours “the most superb and brilliant that have ever delighted the human eye” 

But where did this new artificial colour come from? A few years earlier, in 1856, William Perkin’s experiments, with coal tar (a waste product of industrial gas lighting) had resulted in the creation of a purplish sludge, which the young chemist discovered to be light resistant and colourfast when applied to cloth. The discovery of “Perkin’s Mauve” marked the beginning of the aniline dye rush of the 1850s and ‘60s, in which industrial chemists competed to maximise the commercial potential of the oxidised residue of fossil fuels. The first aniline dyes were all bright shades of purple: a colour whose considerable expense, when derived from natural sources, had previously made it the wealthy’s exclusive preserve.

Magenta dress of piña and silk. 1868. Boston Museum of Fine Arts

But the new aniline processes meant that everyone could purchase and wear purple, and popular variants of these bold bright, synthetic shades rapidly proliferated, in fashion, in art, in interior decoration, and of course in knitting too.

The use of “Magenta yarn” is specified in several of the designs included in Eléonore Riego de la Branchardière’s book of patterns from 1861.

When a new red-ish, purple-ish aniline variant was discovered, some manufacturers gave it evocative floral names like Roseine and Fuschine: monikers which suggested the confluence of the organic and the the technological, of nature and artifice.  But it was the word Magenta which eventually became firmly associated with this brand-new hue of purplish-red, which then went on to become one of the most popular (and commercially contested) colours of the later nineteenth century.

Fan of brown leather and magenta silk (1873) Boston Museum of Fine Arts.

Whatever one’s allegiances, naming a colour after a battle is not an unambiguous act, and Magenta’s bloody associations certainly meant that the name might seem, even to those who supported Italian unification, somewhat distasteful. In his 1869 lecture series The Queen of the Air, for example, John Ruskin explored the historical resonances of purple, a colour whose classical etymology he describes as being caught somewhere between “blackness and fire,” and whose hues were associated, in ancient Greece and Rome, with ideas of death and excess. “We moderns,” says Ruskin “who have got our purple out of coal instead of the sea . . .have completed the shadow and the fear of it by giving it a name from battle—Magenta.”

Magenta in the Wilson colour chart (1938)

But the new colour’s bellicose associations did not seem to detract from its widespread appeal, and throughout the 1860s, countless industrial chemists rushed to reproduce and capitalise upon Magenta: the new, bold colour of the moment. Soon, vivid, red-ish purple was one of the most sought-after shades for the dresses, mantles, hats and gloves of fashionable consumers across Europe and the United States who all seemed keen to deck themselves out in Magenta over the course of the decades that followed. But the shade’s very success meant that it also began to court controversy. 

John Singer Sargent, Mrs Hugh Hammersley (1892). The sitter’s dress of gloriously-hued magenta velvet divided opinion because of the way it recalled the bright, bold artificial shades of the 1860s. One reviewer described it as “only one shade removed from something aniline and terrible”. The Metropolitan Museum.

If the market for Magenta was rapidly expanding, then so too were the number of commercial disputes in which it became involved.  In 1860, the rush to develop efficient industrial processes for producing Magenta had resulted in the sale of a patent for the then considerable sum of £2000 to Simpson, Maule and Nicholson, England’s largest manufacturer of industrial dyes. Because the anhydrous arsenic involved in the patented process was both recoverable and reusable, the dyeing method was particularly cheap and efficient. Protective of their patent,  Simpson, Maule and Nicholson “vowed to take proceedings against all persons who employ arsenic acid for the production of Magenta dye.” The following year, they had to do just that, when it was discovered that a rival manufacturer, Wilson and Fletcher, were also using arsenic to produce a similar shade. What rights, what substances, what processes, were involved in the Magenta patent? Was it possible to lay claim to a colour? Could a single company ever own a hue?  Simpson v Wilson (1862), was just the beginning of a series of drawn out and largely inconclusive battles, in which rival industrial competitors fought over Magenta, not with swords and bayonets, but with discursive weapons, legal and scientific. 

Silk brocade ribbon, with magenta flowers. Late 19th century. Boston Museum of Fine Arts.

Magenta is a really interesting example of how a particular colour can capture a particular moment. In 1860, its synthetic boldness made it seem the very embodiment of novelty and progress: completely new, incredibly modern, profoundly desirable. And while it was fashionable consumption that initially fuelled Magenta’s popularity (as well as the fractious and costly disputes among those who manufactured it), the aniline dye rush also had implications for industrial and scientific advancement more generally. For, out of the same coal tar chemistry that produced Magenta emerged drugs like synthetic aspirin, modern disinfectants, and the principles of what was later to become chemotherapy. As Punch put it: 

There’s hardly a thing a man can name

Of beauty or use in life’s small game,

But you can extract in alembro or jar

From the physical basis of black coal tar: 

Oil and ointment and wax and wine, 

And the lovely colours called aniline: 

You can make anything, from salve to a star

(If you only know how) from black coal tar.

Madeleine & Madeleine, magenta silk velvet coat (1920s). Boston Museum of Fine Arts

As new aniline shades proliferated in the nineteenth-century’s late decades, the naming of colours often seemed to be as much of an industry as their production. Colours were named after places, and people, after famous encounters and fashionable ideas, and while everyone knows what Magenta is, who now could describe the distinctive hues which, in the 1870s and 80s, were popularly known as Hermosa, Maria Louise, or Eosine? That a word associated with a particular battle firmly stuck, as it were, to a bright red-ish purple, and that the word Magenta was then carried forward as a colour that’s still familiar today, is probably a result of its use as one of the process inks used in the CMYK subtractive methods, which were introduced, toward the turn of the twentieth century, in the printing of photographic images, comics, and magazines. 

bookplate printed with magenta ink

Magenta retains its ubiquity today in diverse fields from graphic design to scientific imaging. Neither warm or cool, red or blue, it is a colour that permanently vacillates between two poles, or sides which, in many parts of the world, now carry familiar political associations. And perhaps it is this characteristic in-between-y position that inspired Pantone to select Viva Magenta as the shade of 2023, for it is—perhaps uniquely—a colour that can suggest an idea of neutrality while simultaneously being, in its bold, bright self, the complete opposite of a neutral. Both life and death, nature and artifice, since its inception in 1859, Magenta has revealed a curious ability to endure, as well as to soak up meaning, to somehow suggest everything, everywhere, all at once. It’s never an easy colour, but it’s certainly unquestionably present. Perhaps that’s why it seems an appropriate choice for the chromatic turn of 2023. 

Further reading

Philip Ball, Bright Earth: The Invention of Colour (2001; 2009)

Laura Anne Kalba, Color in the Age of Impressionism: Commerce, Technology and Art (2017)

On John Ruskin’s purples, see Stephen Bann’s essay, “Ruskin’s Basket of Strawberries” in John Dixon Hunt and Faith Holland eds, The Ruskin Polygon (1982)

On the John Singer Sargent portrait, see Jessica Regan, “A crying tint of rose”

On Magenta yarn in early knitting patterns, see Eléonore Riego de la Branchardière, The Andalusian Knitting and Netting Book (1861)

Your first Allover pattern of the new year lands on Monday 9th.