Color of 2023: from beetroot red to pinkish fuchsia

At a secret meeting of experts from various fields, Pantone, the American company dealing with the manufacture and standarization of color reproduction charts, has chosen for the 24th time, a color that is supposed to reflect the "spirit of the age".

The middle of the 19th century was the time of discoveries, both in the fields of invention, electricity and engineering as well as biology and chemistry. It was life itself that was constantly throwing up new challenges for the world’s scientists. August Wilhelm von Hofmann, an expert in amines (i.e. derivatives of ammonia) and electrolysis of water, was obsessed with trying to invent synthetic quinine, a task that would fascinate chemists for the next hundred years.

In the 19th century, malaria was one of the most dangerous diseases not just in Africa, but in Europe and Asia as well, where there were continuous outbreaks of the sickness. That is why finding a quinine substitute, one that could be produced in a laboratory instead of from the bark of the cinchona tree that grows only in the Andes, was such an urgent task.

Gin and tonic

The issue of malaria prevention and treatment was so urgent at the time that [in the course of searching for a solution] many other, not so obvious, discoveries were made. This led led led to the creation of what proved to be one of the most popular drinks of all time, -- gin and tonic (then called "quinine water"). As you might guess, even so popular a cocktail was not capable of replacing the authentic medicine with an effective standardized dose. As a result, the search for a malaria antidote continued. In 1856, Professor Hofmann assigned the task to one of his chemistry students, William Henry Perkin.

Day after day, eighteen-year-old Perkin would lock himself into the laboratory at the Royal College of Chemistry [now part of Imperial College London], earnestly mixing various reagents in hopes of achieving the desired effect. Yet this tedious routine was not yielding the desired results as Perkin’s tried various experiments. For example, believing that aniline extracted from charcoal might yield a formula similar to quinine, he tried to extract its equivalent, i.e. C20H24N2O2, from tar extracted from a gas lamp. However, instead of the expected effect, he received a black, tarry smear, firmly stuck to the insides of the cylindical containers. Then, in an attempt to get rid of the tar-like substance, the young chemist poured alcohol into the beakers, which was when he first saw a beautiful pink-purple color.

Who knows what the outcome of this seemingly futile adventure might have been had not Perkin possessed a keen artistic sense. Fortunately for a large part of humanity, the young man was quick to recognize the potential of his unplanned discovery. Together with his colleagues, Arthur and Thomas Church, he began further research into the practical applications of the dye. Despite their alleged efforts to keep this work secret from Professor Hofmann, the three were unable to hide it for too long and within a matter of a few months they had signed a contract with a large production company. In this way, a color called "mauveine" or less romantically „aniline purple” came to life in 1856.

Color of the year

In 2022, i.e. 166 years after Perkin’s discovery, at a secret meeting of experts from various fields, Pantone, the American company dealing with the manufacture and standarization of color reproduction charts, chose for the 24th time, a color that is supposed to reflect the "spirit of the age". No matter how pretentious or pathetic such an idea might be, many fashion designers, florists and many other consumer-oriented companies as well as ordinary people look forward to Pantone’s annual announcement because, despite the seeming trivial nature of the subject, this decision can and does translate into multi-figure profits for the creators of the winning color.

Prior examples include 2011’s choice of Honeysuckle (catalog number 18-2120) that supposedly "gets the adrenaline going and wards off the blues ", and 2022’s Very Peri (catalog number 17-3938), the chameleon of the color world, which, depending on the point of view and intensity, moves between blue and cold purple, and "stimulates creativity".

Just a month ago, Pantone announced the color for 2023. It is Viva Magenta (catalog number 18-1750), described by the company as an "endless new ecosystem" and by the New York Times’ journalist Jason Farago as "definitely not organic, but not quite electric".
Magenta was one of Queen Elizabeth II's favorite colors. Photo: Max Mumby/Indigo/Getty Images
Mindful of the story of William H. Perkin, we might object to this "inorganicity," but first we should clarify the connection between these two seemingly distant stories. History teaches us that seasonal color trends are not such a new idea. As a Roman proverb says: Audaces fortuna iuvat (Fortune favors the bold), and Perkin undoubtedly was one of fortune’s favorites.  

Although it is difficult for us to imagine in this day and age, up until the mid-19th century, color was a commodity both desirable and scarce. There was only a small number of natural dyes in common use, and their durability and saturation levels left much to be desired.

  This added greatly to the impact of the young chemist’s discovery. On the one hand, he had added another stone in the foundations of organic chemistry (even if he didn’t know it at the time). Moreover, he revolutionized the industry (not only the textile industry) and at the same time ensured a prosperous life for himself and his descendants.

However, before that happened, he had to spend many more tedious hours in his laboratory seeking to arrive at the perfect proportions of aniline ingredients required to esure that manufacturers would consistently achieve the exact same color result. Thanks to these efforts, he finally managed to come up with a quick, easy and relatively inexpensive procedure.

As a result of these challenges, Perkin was never to return to academic chemistry. He remained absorbed with issues on the borderline of industrial chemistry and... painting. So much so that during his lifetime, the talented inventor patented a number of other original colors including Perkin's Green (turquoise green) and Britannia Violet. He also co-created the shade of  crimson known as Alizarin red (C14H8O4).

Violet Rush

Until almost the end of the 20th century, the phenomena of fast fashion and see now, buy now were relatively unknown. It took time to develop the technologies and the trends that led to their creation. The same happened with Aniline purple. However, it would be wrong to think that the joy of color was unknown until the Industrial Revolution.

From ancient times, one or another color would be considered fashionable. In the Middle Ages, the choice of specific colors had special meaning and was strictly codified. Access to certain colors, the chromatic ancestor of magenta, Tyrian purple for example, was strictly restricted on the basis of merit and wealth.

There is a charming painting by Franz Xaver Winterhalter, depicting Empress Eugenie, wife of Napoleon III, surrounded by her baroness friends. They all wear fabulous dresses, decorated with ribbons, lace and flowers, each of a different color: from pale pink, through pistachio, to white with violet ornaments belonging to the empress.

Eugenie de Montijo was, in today’s terminology, a true trendsetter. She set standards for European fashion and, helped bring back the crinoline, which had fallen out of favor since the beheading of Marie Antoinette. Empress Eugenie also played a role in securing the success of the new color -- violet. It was because of her that the "Violet Rush " swept over Europe. In January 1860, the weekly magazine "All the Year Round" published by Charles Dickens reporting on the new color proclaimed:

It's rich and clean and goes with everything; be it a fan, slipper, gown, ribbon, scarf, tie or gloves. It lends a glow to the soft, unchanging dusk of woman's eyes. It will take any shape to find an excuse to flutter around her cheek, cling (when the wind blows it) to her lips, kiss her foot, whisper into her ear. O Perkin's purple, you are the lucky and favorite color.

Not long afterwards, at the world exhibition in London, Queen Victoria, to whom we can ascribe the spectacular career of white as the color of wedding dresses, dazzled with a magenta creation. Since then, a mixture of purple and red has become a permanent part of the canon of English national colors.

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The great French Impressionist painter Claude Monet wrote in his diary: I want to capture the intangible. It's scary how the light goes away taking the color with it. A color, any color, lasts a second, sometimes three, four minutes at the most.

And so it was with magenta, its shade  changing over the decades. Because aniline color on classic color wheels lies exactly in the middle between red and blue, it was sometimes depicted as more purple, sometimes closer to beetroot red and now, in modern times – more like pinkish fuchsia.

Many of these changes were related to the development of printing, and later also to electrical and electronic engineering (TV sets, monitors). Magenta, although it sounds abstract, is one of the basic pigments for them and from the combination of it together with yellow and cyan (i.e. blue-green), further colors are obtained.

The color of the purple

While tonal variations have their deep justification in physical phenomena, or more precisely the optical ones, the entire color nomenclature remains a matter of discretion. Jan Sztaudynger, the Polish writer, argued in one of his epigrams: "Who can talk about colors better / Than we, blind poets ".

Perhaps writers were also responsible for the name of the dye invented by Perkin, because it changed many times. From the already mentioned chemical name, through "mauveine", to the most popular magenta. Where did the last of them come from?  In contemporary terms, it was invented by the so-called spin doctors, i.e. specialists in political marketing. It was thanks to them that the popular color was renamed in honor of the victorious Battle of Magenta.  

 From today's perspective, this is not a particularly well-known skirmish, so let us recall that it was among the battles of the so-called "Second Italian War of Independence". It took place on June 4, 1859 and resulted in a French-Sardinian victory under Napoleon III that recaptured territory in the vicinity of Milan from the occupying Austrian troops led by  Marshal Ferencz Gyulay.

It was notable for the special role played by the forces of African soldiers, especially the so-called Zouaves. They were distinguished not only for their fighting spirit, but also for their original costumes. Let's look at the painting "De Zouaaf" in which Vincent van Gogh depicted a soldier dressed in a black, embroidered caftan, wearing  a characteristic eastern cap resembling a fez. The headgear is painted in the striking purple color that stands out from the background; however, other surviving iconography indicates that the Zouaves wore only trousers in this color.

And reverting to the origin of the name itself, today there is no unanimity as to the reason for this particular choice of name or why another nomenclature was not selected. Was it the combination of the color of the Zouaves’ uniforms and the town where they had proved their valor, or was the color of their uniforms somehow associated with the dresses worn by Empress Eugenie, and the name of the town merely an accidental coincidence?
The onomastics of Magenta itself are not clear either. According to legend, this small town, located just 30 km from Milan, was founded by the Roman emperor Maxentius (280-312). However, no sources confirm this patrimony. Most likely, the name of the city, and indirectly the color, derive from the Celtic word "mag" that means "marshy wilderness" or as Dante Olivieri , the linguist from the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries claimed, from the Tuscan maggente / maggentus meaning "home" or "resting place".

Good omen

So, will Viva Magenta (18-1750) really bring the City and the World longed-for peace in 2023? If we were to read colors instead of coffee grounds, the prophecy would not herald calm. Instead, it would suggest reinforcement and extra energy to act. As Leatrice Eiseman, Executive Director of the Pantone Color Institute, suggests: "magenta reconnects us to primal matter [...] evoking the forces of nature, energizing our spirit, helping us build our inner strength." To many, such an explication may seem pretentious or even superfluous.

Then let us recall the words of Henryk Sienkiewicz, who wrote: "It is not reality itself, but the heart with which we approach it that gives things shapes and colors."

–Marta Panas-Goworska, Andrzej Goworski

TVP WEEKLY. Editorial team and journalists

–Translated by Agnieszka Rakoczy
Main photo: Bougainvillea, a magenta-color plant native to South America. Photo: Phil Bird / imageBROKER / Forum
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