Manganese Violet is a reddish-purple inorganic pigment that has been in use since the 19th century. It is an enigmatic colour with a low tinting strength and a muted, smoky character. This article explores the history of Manganese Violet, the ways it was used by the Impressionist Claude Monet, and how to get the most out of the colour in mixtures.
Manganese Violet (PV16) is often called Mineral Violet, although it isn’t made from a mineral- it is made by combining manganese chloride, phosphoric acid, and ammonium carbonate. Throughout history, purple and violet colourants have been extremely rare. Tyrian Purple, an ancient dye made from the mucus of sea-snails, was so valuable during the Roman period that it was reserved only for the robes of the elite. Even today, the associations between the colour purple and royalty remain. From around 800 BC, a synthetic inorganic pigment now referred to as Han Purple, was used in China. Its use, however, had stopped by 220 BC. Before the 19th century, purples and violets needed to be mixed using red and blue pigments. This changed in 1859 when Cobalt Violet was invented, and it was shortly followed by Manganese Violet in 1866.
There is disagreement over whether it is a true violet. Traditionally, violet is closest to blue on the colour wheel, whereas purple is closer to red. Despite it’s strong red-bias, the pigment is almost always referred to as violet.
Manganese Violet was enthusiastically embraced by the Impressionists, but perhaps the artist that was most enamoured with the colour was Claude Monet. The luminous quality of violet is often harnessed in his famous Water Lilies series.
Manganese Violet plays a more subtle, yet no less enigmatic, role in his Rouen Cathedral series, where it is used masterfully in his chromatic shadows:
His love of the colour contributed to accussations by critics of his suffering from ‘violetomania’, but he seemed to lean into the criticism when he proclaimed that “I have finally discovered the true color of the atmosphere. It is violet. Fresh air is violet. Three years from now, everyone will work in violet.”
Despite Monet’s enthusiasm for the colour, Manganese Violet never became an extremely popular artist pigment in comparison with Cobalt Blue, Viridian, and other iconic pigments of the Impressionist movement. It is a rather unsaturated, maybe even slightly dull, purple with a low to average tinting strength and poor covering-power. However, it does have characteristics that many artists value- it is extremely lightfast and permanent, granulates beautifully in watercolour, and in oil it dries quickly due to its manganese content. It is included in many professional oil and watercolour ranges, but is found in very few acrylic ranges. This could be because more vibrant purple and violet pigments (like Dioxazine and Quinacridone Violet) are more popular with acrylic painters.
Mixing with Manganese Violet
Manganese Violet’s relatively muted character needs to be taken into consideration when mixing with it. In comparison to more modern violet pigments with a similar hue, like Perylene and Quinacridone violets, its gentleness becomes clear:
Another consideration is its tinting strength- mix Manganese Violet with a highly tinting colour and it will struggle to hold its own. Complimentary colours are a good place to start when mixing with a new pigment- in Manganese Violet’s case, complementary colours would be those in the yellow-spectrum. As a strong pigment like Cadmium Yellow could overwhelm- gentler colours like Raw Sienna, Yellow Ochre, and Lemon Yellow felt like a better match:
These mixtures with yellow make some very interesting shades of brown that are more chromatic than those produced by brown earth pigments. The redness of the Yellow Ochre Deep allows the Manganese Violet to hold on to its own red bias, making some particularly pinkish browns, while Raw Sienna neutralises it a little more. Manganese Violet’s low tinting strength comes into play here, as even the Yellow Ochre overwhelmed the violet extremely quickly. The mixtures with Lemon Yellow are particularly fascinating, making some glowing gold shades. While Manganese Violet isn’t an obvious choice for a portrait painting palette, it seems like it could be a useful addition in combination with a yellow.
The next colour mixtures have been made with oil paint. Manganese Violet appears slightly deeper and cleaner in oil paint, while it is more ‘milky’ in watercolour. As a result these mixtures are more jewel-like than if they had been in watercolour (it is quite common for pigments to appear different in different binders- Cerulean Blue also has a slight milky quality in watercolour). In the following colour mixtures, it was mixed with more relatively low tinting colours- Viridian, Cobalt Blue, Terre Verte, and Nickel Titanate Yellow:
Manganese Violet proves to be an atmospheric mixing partner with Viridian green, making a spectrum of stormy blues and then dark teals. With Cobalt Blue it tips the balance between blue and purples, making some glowing shades that are similar to Ultramarine Violet. Terre Verte brrings down the saturation of Manganese Violet, making some beautiful greys that are almost black. It is interesting to compare the mixtures with Nickel Titanate Yellow with the mixtures with other yellows above– Nickel Titanate Yellow lends an opacity that the other yellows don’t, but it makes similar warm browns to the mixtures with Lemon Yellow which would be interesting to use in a portrait palette.
In conclusion, Manganese Violet makes some rather mysterious colour mixtures, as long as it is paired with low-tinting colours that allow it to shine. The atmospheric nature of some of the mixtures brings to mind Monet’s declaration about violet being the colour of the atmosphere– it is not surprising that Monet enjoyed using it.