Why the Impressionists Went Gaga for Purple

Featured image: Claude Monet, Waterloo Bridge, effet de brouillard (1899–1903). Courtesy Christie’s Images Ltd.

by Verity Babbs February 28, 2024

“I have finally discovered the true color of the atmosphere. It is violet. The open air is violet. I found it! […] In three years from now, everyone will be wearing purple!” said Claude Monet. But not everyone was as passionate about purple as Monet and the Impressionists. In fact, the group’s extensive use of the colour upset many critics, who accused the Impressionists of suffering from “Violettomania”.

The first true pigment—cobalt violet—was synthesized in 1859, and nine years later came the brighter and less toxic manganese violet. The Impressionists, who had their first exhibition in Paris in 1874, loved to use the shade in their mission to portray the true nature of light in their paintings. Some critics even put the group’s heavy use of violet down to optical and neurological conditions. The German ophthalmologist Richard Liebreich saw works by J.M.W. Turner—another fan—at London’s National Gallery, and asked whether the artist’s new work was “caused by an ocular or cerebral disturbance”.

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