Why it took us thousands of years to see the colour violet (pigment fashions)

C C Offline

EXCERPTS (Allen Tager): As a schoolboy in Soviet Russia in the 1960s [...] the school rules made us practise our penmanship in ink, which came in violet. It was the only colour of ink allowed ... In contrast, though, outside of school, violet was hard to find, be it in paintings or everyday life...

Decades later, walking along Oxford Street in London one rainy day in the late 1990s, I was stunned to see that shops were brimming with women’s clothing in a myriad of violet shades [...] I realised that, in my childhood, I’d never seen anyone in a violet blazer, shirt, tie or dress, holding a violet umbrella.

Intrigued, I [...] found just one violet painting made before the Impressionist era began in 1863. Strangely, it looked like the greatest artists of the past epoch had ignored this colour – until the French Impressionists embraced it. Why so? I decided to find out.

[...] We also needed a definition of violet. Developments in colour science led to reliable image analysis tools to recognise the colour categories red, orange, yellow, green and blue. However, no such algorithm existed yet for violet.

To make matters worse, international surveys showed that people tend to be unsure about exactly what constitutes the colour violet. The same person who describes an object’s colour as violet today might describe it as purple, blue, magenta, fuchsia or burgundy tomorrow.

Language plays a role, too [...] The colour beyond blue on the spectrum is called purple in the US, but violet in the UK. Reddish-purple is sometimes called violet in the US, but hardly so in Britain... Our research led us to a first working definition for the colour violet: all mixtures of red and blue for which blue dominates.

[...] As we examined paintings using this definition, we confirmed my prior findings. Until the mid-19th century, the colour violet had appeared in fewer than 4 per cent of paintings. But in the second half of the 19th century, this rate quickly rose to 37 per cent, and spiked to 48 per cent in the 20th century. We still didn’t know what sparked that sudden change, so we looked for some explanations.

[...] It turned out that it wasn’t the garment industry that stimulated Impressionists to embrace the violet colour, but rather the science of colour itself. ... the French chemist Michel Eugène Chevreul who discovered the law of simultaneous contrast: colours appear to be more intense when placed next to their complementary colour. Then, in 1864 the influential French art critic Charles Blanc wrote an article [...and..] a prominent treatise for artists in late-19th-century France. It would directly inspire painters such as Georges Seurat, Vincent van Gogh, Camille Pissarro and indirectly also Claude Monet, Paul Signac and many others.

[...] As a scientist, however, I kept wondering if there were also other forces that enabled us to see and appreciate the colour violet. ... what could have caused us humans to embrace the colour violet so recently in our history?

One theory comes from the American astrobiologist Adrian Melott at the University of Kansas, who has suggested that cosmic rays produced by supernovae can alter ionisation of the atmosphere [...] Low levels of ionising radiation can cause biological molecules to mutate slightly, which can promote genetic variation. ... Our planet is still ploughing through the debris of ancient supernovae, and I can’t help but wonder whether a muon shower might have enhanced our ability to see violet midway through the 19th century on Earth.

As the Ukrainian American geneticist Theodosius Dobzhansky wrote in 1973: ‘Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution.’ (MORE - missing details)
Kornee Offline
Implicit in that article is the demotion of Indigo to a non-color. I go with tradition:
And hate the way it (rainbow) has been hijacked for ideological purposes - like certain traditional words have.
And worth noting that the source light giving 'equal representation' to all 7 (or 6 if you prefer) colors is pure white! Ha ha ha.

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