Mauve

Mauve

In 1856 the 18 year-old chemist William Henry Perkin was desperately looking for a way to synthesize quinine–since the British Empire relied so heavily on the Peruvian bark as an antimalarial agent throughout its many tropical colonies.  The brilliant young chemist failed to find a replacement for quinine, but he instead found a brilliant purple-pink chemical “mauveine” the very first aniline dye (the toxic aromatic amines today serve as precursors to numerous industrial compounds).

Sir William Perkin (Arthur S. Cope, 1906, oil on canvas)

Sir William Perkin (Arthur S. Cope, 1906, oil on canvas)

Perkin’s discovery lead to a revolution in purple dyes which had historically been costly, rare, and fugitive.  Suddenly cheap synthetic purples were everywhere—particularly mauve, which was named for mauveine.   Perkins named his dye after the French word mauve (French for a particular sort of purple mallow flower).

Victorian style dress with unfaded purple dye

Victorian style dress with unfaded purple dye

Today we understand mauve to be a slightly blue-grayish shade of magenta, but the original usage may have been different.  Mauveine dyes fabrics to a brilliant glowing purple—initially—however the synthetic purples created from this dye are also fugitive.  The fabrics quickly faded and left succeeding generations with a somewhat attenuated color (which is what we thibnk of as mauve). Some of the pre-Raphaelites even painted whole canons of works which soon changed colors as the purples faded.

A contemporary mauve

A contemporary mauve

Many succeeding generations of new artificial dye have long since swept away mauveine (although Perkins became rich and was knighted for his teenage discovery).  We now have brighter purples which do not fade (like the quinacridones and diozanines in my paintbox). Whatever the virtues of the original color, mauve, as it is today understood, is a beautiful purple.

Windflowers (John William Waterhouse, 1902, oil on canvas)

Windflowers (John William Waterhouse, 1902, oil on canvas)