Back in March, I was working on this painting when I had a dream that left me awake at 5 AM, rushing in to the studio to continue adding glazes of white to the foggy early-morning sky:
In the dream, the painting was overflowing with purple. No matter how much white paint I laid down, and how quickly, the purple kept flowing out from the horizon line, threatening to flood the field and drown the horses in goo.
This, my friends, is the power of Indigomania.
The writer and critic Joris-Karl Huysmans was the first to use the term to describe the Impressionists’ enjoyment of purple and violet (hence the related term “violettomania”).(1) Monet’s lively and atmospheric paintings of trains pulling into the Gare Saint-Lazare demonstrate it, and he himself reportedly said, “I have finally discovered the true color of the atmosphere. It’s violet. Fresh air is violet.”(2) There seems to be truth to this. The freshness of these scenes does owe a great deal to his use of soft purples in the clouds of smoke and steam, and in some of the other shadows as well.
Of course, indigomania isn’t really a pathological condition. At least, it wasn’t for Monet.
The nineteenth century saw two major technological developments that influenced the Impressionists. 1840 was the year Winsor and Newton introduced the first paint sold in tubes, making it much easier for artists to store their paint and transport it for plein-air painting. The first tubes were glass syringes, but in 1842, flexible metal tubes with screw caps were introduced. Painters have been searching high and low for their pliers ever since.
You can read about this, and see a picture of an original glass tube, here.
More importantly, this was also a period in which many new synthetic pigments were developed, including several purples. Cobalt violet (PV 14) was first produced in 1859, followed by the warmer and stronger manganese violet (PV 16) in 1868. According to Gamblin, which still produces all three of these historic shades in oils, ultramarine violet (PV 15) was introduced sometime during this period as well, although I’ve been unable to find an exact date. (Please comment if you know!) For the most part, the Impressionists continued to combine reds and blues to create purples, rather than using the new colors, but Monet was more accepting of them.(3)
Having single-pigment purple paint available is very convenient, especially when time is of the essence, as it is in plein-air painting, where the light changes as the sun moves across the sky. It makes it easier to mix the same shade of purple after the first glob on the palette has dried. It can be hard to predict how a purple mixed from a red and a blue will change when mixed with other colors; a tube purple is more consistent.
In my own experience this creates a bit of a vicious cycle. I’ve started to use it just because it’s there, which I wouldn’t be doing if I had to mix red and blue every time I wanted purple. I might actually have a little problem.
The only purple pigment I have personal experience with at this point is dioxazine violet (PV23 (RS)), which is a modern dye like the phthalos and quinacridones. It’s the strongest of any mentioned here. Even a tiny amount of it mixed with about five times as much French ultramarine, and goodly gobs of titanium white, still produces not a purplish blue, but a bluish purple:
It does produce some very nice, more natural tones when mixed with generous amounts of raw umber.
Anyway, when paint manufacturers caution “use sparingly,” they ain’t kidding.
1. Philip Ball, Bright Earth: Art and the Invention of Color (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2002), 184.
2. The quotation was recorded in Jules Claretie, La Vie a Paris, 1881 (Paris, 1881), 266. Quoted in Ball, Bright Earth, 184.
3. Ball, Bright Earth, 184.