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  • Writer's pictureMichael Skalka

Divine Aniline, Won’t You Be Mine

Summary: The invention of mauve by William Henry Perkins in 1856 from coal tar initiated the study of aniline chemistry. A wide variety of hues could be derived from manipulating dark black coal tar. The companies that engaged in fabricating dyes from coal tar grew into industrial giants in the chemical and pharmaceutical companies that still exist today.


This essay focuses on an important role in the fundamental origins of art materials, but the details have been obscured by time. For those who have read a bit of history about the discovery of synthetic mauve, and its inventor William Henry Perkins, the adventure begins with his success in discovering a violet color derived from mixing chemicals with coal tar. The resulting dye created a new industry and Perkins quickly understood its future monetary potential. While the color “mauveine” and the industry of making dyes started with Sir William Perkins it expanded into a major industry with many competitors vying for market share that resulted in the creation of huge, successful chemical companies. To think that Perkins’ original goal was to synthesize quinine cheaply that would be used to treat malaria.


While in today’s world of proprietary information and materials guarded by patents, a “hole” existed in Europe in the late 1850s that allowed critical information about dye-making that Sir William generously shared. This resulted in allowing others to piece together critical parts of the coal tar dye-making process. A manufacturer located in Switzerland could exploit the information they obtained because the Swiss did not view formulations and processes as protected intellectual property in that period of time. (Dan Fagin, Toms River: A Story of Science and Salvation, 2013)


So Perkins’ method for converting coal tar into dyes was studied and reconstituted by an existing dye maker in Basel, Switzerland named Johann Rudolf Geigy-Merian. In addition, Alexander Clavel also was interested in the production of coal tar dyes. The initial discovery by Perkins launched research and development in aniline chemistry and unlocked a broad spectrum of colors made from coal tar. Only ingenuity and time impeded chemists from exploiting all that was to be discovered about coal tar. (Fagin, 2013)


If we pause for a moment to consider the long-term ramifications of the genesis of the dye industry, while the names appear obscure to most, those who understand the history of chemical and pharmaceutical manufacturers know that the roots of the success and fortune of many current chemical and drug manufacturers started with their success in making dyes. More on that in a moment.


The discovery of mauveine by Perkins was embraced by the fabric industry which in turn impacted the fashion industry. Historical texts and lithograph illustrations of colorful women’s dresses transform the fashion world. Prior to the invention of aniline dyes clothing was fairly drab. Color become the rage in the late 1850s.


A parallel expansion of hue choices in the artists’ world is seen in the number of vibrant colors in oil paints and watercolors made by colormen in the late 19th century. The literature on paint history and conservation contains information on both the enhancement of traditional colors and the creation of completely new paints using discoveries based on aniline chemistry. One paint manufacturer stood apart from the others. Winsor and Newton took pride in discussing and publishing the permanence of their paints, ranking them by their durability. In the 1924 edition of “Specimen Tints of Artists’ Colours cojoined with Tables of Permanence” by W&N, the catalog lists nineteen oil paints that are designated as “Class III” fugitive colors. Among them are Geranium Lake, Green Lake, Light, Mauve, Mauve No.2, Olive Green, Purple Lake, Olive Lake, Prussian Green, Violet Carmine, and Yellow Lake.


Humorous by today’s standards, the Winsor and Newton specimen tints book warns readers in numerous places within the catalog of the dangers that cause discoloration of colors. Paints may be “Sullied if Sulphuretted Hydrogen (arising from Sewers, etc.) obtains access.” Apparently, sewer drains were not something to be taken lightly in London. Equally, not having a painting hanging anywhere near an open sewer was repeatedly stated. Warnings were also given to avoid having paintings exposed to sulfur fumes given off by coal fires. The W&N book suggests that life, in general, had many daily hazards to combat.


It is important to note that the inherent fugitive nature of many dyes had and continues to have an impact on the manufacture of pastels. Dyes were and are ideal because they differ in structure as compared to pigments. They are incorporated easily into the recipe for pastels and retain their vibrance.


Today, many of the exciting colors artists appear to want and purchase are derived from dyes. High chroma violets, reds, and mauve colors can only be obtained from the use of dyes. Inorganic and many organic pigments do not contain the intensity to create high chroma ranges of color. Unfortunately, using dyes runs the risk of having a pastel prematurely fade.


Regarding the key dye manufacturers from the late 19th century, the company overseen by Rudolf Geigy-Merian eventually merged with Alexander Clavel’s dye works. In 1884, Clavel’s company changed its name and reverted to using the initials of its new name: “Ciba.” Merging with Geigy, the company became known as Ciba-Geigy. It later transitioned to pharmaceutical manufacturing. In the 1990s it changed its name to “Ciba” and in 1996 it merged with another drug company Sandoz and was rebranded as Novartis AG, a pharmaceutical and healthcare manufacturer. (Fagin, 2013)


Other players in the chemical industry grew in stature. Bayer, Hoechst, Agfa, and the mega-company called Badische Anilin-und Soda-Fabrik more commonly known as BASF all commanded large segments of the market share in the chemical industry. While the companies transitioned into the pharmaceutical market and moved away from dyes and pigments, chemical companies like BASF continued to make dyes and expanded in many directions. BASF is a major producer of pigments for industrial uses and art materials manufacturers also purchase pigments from them.


While many interesting stories can be uncovered about scientific discoveries that impact art materials, as giant chemical companies grew, their staff of scientists created colorants within the confines of the companies that employed them. In many cases, an amazing color used by artists is not associated with a single person or team of scientists. They work in obscurity. The products are merely a skew number in a catalog of materials offered for sale. But there are many more exciting stories about materials that impacted the world of art products. Stay tuned.


Syntax of Color

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