Magazine article The New Yorker

Rhapsodies in Blue and Mauve

Magazine article The New Yorker

Rhapsodies in Blue and Mauve

Article excerpt

In 1856, a failed attempt to synthesize quinine from an extract of coal tar left eighteen-year-old William Perkin with an unappealing "black residue." Instead of throwing it out, he found that "the solution of it resulted in a strangely beautiful color." As described in Simon Garfield's MAUVE (Norton), this purplish pigment soon became extraordinarily popular and profitable. Mauve was big with both Queen Victoria and Empress Eugenie of France--and, consequently, with women everywhere. By 1859, Punch magazine had reported that London was in the grip of "Mauve Measles."

Few people get to invent a new color, but society reinvents color all the time. Michel Pastoureau's BLUE (Princeton), translated from the French by Markus I. Cruse, insists that color is "first and foremost a social phenomenon." Most ancient cultures ignored blue, and it wasn't until the color became associated with the Virgin Mary that its fortunes picked up. …

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