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  • Writer's pictureMichael Skalka

Roses are Red, Violets are VIOLET

Summary: Documents describing the origin of a pigment can consume multiple pages of explanatory facts or be stated in merely one sentence. The paltry, ambiguous description of cobalt violet is one of those color discoveries that have no exciting story associated with it.

The formulation of cobalt violet, (cobalt arsenate) was created by the chemist Louis Alphonse Salvetat in 1859 when Salvetat was employed at the famous Sevres Imperial Porcelain factory. We know far more about the Sevres factory than we know about Louis Salvetat. He co-author the book Coloring and Decoration of Ceramic Ware with Alexandre Brongniart. Documentation indicates that Brogniart was the director of the Sevres factory and much more information has been written regarding his tenure at Sevres.

One can easily recognize porcelain derived from Sevres. Large museums that maintain a collection of French 19th-century dinner services, as well as ornamental objects will most likely have Sevres porcelain on display. The pieces stand out with their bright colors, their use of gold, and intricately painted portraiture or landscape scenes. By all measures, all the products made in the Sevres factory are elegant pieces of porcelain artwork.

If you had a collection of Sevres dinnerware, these would be the ones that you would only use on rare occasions and would never place in a microwave oven because they would arc tremendously and ruin the gold embellishments. You might even count all the pieces prior to your guest leaving for the evening.

From a contemporary perspective, it is hard to imagine that anyone ever used Sevres pieces for any dinner engagement. We would go far beyond using the terms “fancy” or “special” when referring to dinnerware that anyone would for a modern gathering. The products from Sevres belong to an aristocratic class that saw its heyday in the second half of the eighteenth century and nineteenth centuries. The company survived the French Revolution, the Franco-Prussian War, and two world wars. Sevres porcelain is still in production today and a market for antique pieces is easily found on the Internet.

Salvetat’s tenure at Sevres began in 1841 and ended sometime after the siege of Paris in 1870-1871. Salvetat died in 1882. Most of his accomplishments working in Sevres focused on solving a vexing problem. A few days after firing a porcelain piece, the outer color layer appeared to crack and fall off. Salvetat solved the problem by tracing it to the formulation of the clay mixture. The body material, not the color was separating from the finished product. His knowledge of chemistry was put to the test. Little is mentioned about his work with coloring agents. Most of what is written that is readily available about Salvetat deals with how he transitioned porcelain from soft paste to hard paste production.

The history of Sevres is intertwined with the rise and fall of political, social, and artistic, movements in France. The success of the factory pivoted on the stability and friendliness of whatever group was politically in control. Sevres was a frequently visited target due to it being closely aligned with the aristocracy in France. It is rather amazing that it survived the French Revolution and all the wars that followed.

Despite little attention in electronic literature paid to Salvetat’s invention of cobalt violet, the one attribute that all artists who know and use this pigment, is its expense. The pigment that Salvetat made was cobalt arsenate, a highly toxic material. I speculate that the arsenate composition was harmonious with its use as a color in porcelain that requires firing to achieve the desired hue. Cobalt ammonium phosphate, PV14, produced today is the non-toxic version. It is a deeper violet than cobalt arsenate and thus better suited as an artist’s pigment. Ironically, being such an expensive color, it is described as having fairly low tinting strength.

In today’s paint marketplace, it costs anywhere from 3 times the price of a simple earth pigment and can run as high as $50.00 or more for a 37 ml. tube. Cobalt violet only has 4 other violet competitors. Dioxazine, Manganese, Quinacridone, and Ultramarine Violets make up the remainder of the violet hue kingdom. The only color that has a smaller number of hues available to artists is Black.

Despite its high cost, Cobalt Violet is an extravagant and wonderful addition if secondary colors are incorporated into an artist’s palette. It is one of the cooler violets available when compared to the other violet pigments sold. It is a great color to use alone when a violet hue is needed. In many ways, it has become a special, judiciously used pigment akin to how genuine ultramarine blue was treated prior to the creation of artificial ultramarine in 1826. It is not the violet that you select when you want to mix it with yellow to create a neutral warm grey unless expense is no object.

There are many more color stories to come.

Syntax of Color

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Mar 03, 2023 I want some...

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