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What does the color purple mean in paintings?

What does the color purple mean in paintings?

Purple is a color that has held symbolic meaning for centuries across different cultures. In paintings, the use of the color purple can communicate many ideas and emotions. Here are some of the common symbolic meanings and associations of the color purple in art:


One of the most common symbolic meanings of purple is royalty, sovereignty, and nobility. The rarity and expense of purple dye in ancient times meant that purple garments were exclusively worn by rulers, nobles, and the very wealthy. In paintings, purple robes and clothing therefore represent imperial power, ambition, or spiritual authority. Some examples include:

Painting Use of Purple
The Coronation Portrait of Napoleon by Jacques-Louis David (1805-7) The royal purple robes worn by Napoleon during his coronation ceremony
Portrait of Cardinal Bibbiena by Raphael (c. 1516) The rich purple vestments of the Cardinal communicate his status as a Prince of the Church
Portrait of Marchesa Brigida Spinola-Doria by Peter Paul Rubens (1606) The deep purple dress symbolizes the sitter’s nobility and dynastic prestige


Closely related to royal and aristocratic power, purple also indicates material wealth, luxury, and extravagance. In Renaissance and Baroque painting, the use of saturated, brilliant purples in drapery and clothing often symbolized the wealth and status of noble or courtly sitters. For example:

Painting Use of Purple
The Arnolfini Portrait by Jan van Eyck (1434) The sumptuous purple robe worn by Giovanni Arnolfini indicates his success and prosperity
Man with a Quilted Sleeve by Titian (c. 1510) The intricate, purple-accented sleeve and cap suggest the sitter’s material wealth
Merchant Georg Gisze by Hans Holbein the Younger (1532) Gisze’s opulent, fur-trimmed purple coat communicates his success as a merchant


In religious works of art, purple robes or garments often denote spiritual authority and closeness to God. This stems from the traditional use of purple vestments by Catholic bishops and cardinals. Examples include:

Painting Use of Purple
The Crucifixion by Andrea Mantegna (c. 1490) The purple robe given to Christ before his Crucifixion represents his spiritual authority
Pope Sixtus IV Appoints Bartolomeo Platina Prefect of the Vatican Library by Melozzo da Forlì (c. 1477) Pope Sixtus IV wears purple papal robes to indicate his position as head of the Catholic Church
Saint Luke Painting the Virgin by Rogier van der Weyden (c. 1435-40) Mary wears a deep purple gown, emphasizing her sacred role as Mother of Jesus


In some cultural contexts, the color purple has associations with grief, mourning, and death. This meaning appears mainly in Victorian-era mourning portraits. Examples include:

Painting Use of Purple
Euphemia Gray by Daniel Macnee (1842-43) The purple gown signifies mourning, as this was a posthumous portrait completed after Euphemia’s death
William Frederick, 2nd Duke of Gloucester and Edinburgh by William Beechey (1806) The Duke wears purple mourning clothes following the death of his brother King George III

Romance and Femininity

Especially in more modern art, purple sometimes has connotations of romance, feminine allure, or sentimentality. For example:

Painting Use of Purple
Lilacs in a Window by Mary Cassatt (1878) The purple of lilac flowers evokes a gentle, romantic mood
The Kiss by Gustav Klimt (1908) The woman’s purple robe creates an air of sensuality and romance
Vase of Flowers by Henri Fantin-Latour (1875) The lavender flowers represent femininity and romantic sensibility

Mystery and Imagination

Purple’s rarity in nature and its association with ancient royal dynasties has also given it connotations of magic, mystery and enchantment. This is particularly evident in Symbolist paintings of the late 19th century:

Painting Use of Purple
Isle of the Dead by Arnold Böcklin (1880) The eerie, violet sky hints at a mysterious, otherworldly realm
The Enigma of a Day by Giorgio de Chirico (1914) Surreal purple shadows create an illogical and dreamlike mood
Melancholy and Mystery of a Street by Giorgio de Chirico (1914) Purple imbues the scene with a sense of the inexplicable and imaginative

Counter-Culture and Rebellion

In the 1960s, pop artists like Andy Warhol adopted purple as a hallmark color to go against mainstream sensibilities. Purple came to represent eccentricity and artistic experimentation because of its unconventionality compared to natural colors.

Painting Use of Purple
Marilyn Diptych by Andy Warhol (1962) Warhol’s use of bright purple was innovative and iconic
Purple White and Red Magenta by Al Held (1967) The purple pigment embodies psychedelic counterculture

Ambiguity and Uncertainty

Purple’s blending of warm red and cool blue gives it a complicated personality that can shift between warm and cool. This makes purple an ambiguous color associated with indecision, uncertainty, and moral complexity.

Painting Use of Purple
Harmony in Red by Henri Matisse (1908) The unusual purple tones create visual dissonance and uncertainty
Nocturne: Blue and Silver – Chelsea by James Abbott McNeill Whistler (1871) The unnatural purple creates an ambiguous, uneasy mood


In summary, purple is a color with a complex symbolic history in art. It can variably represent royalty, spirituality, wealth, mourning, romanticism, mystery, and transgression. The diverse meanings of purple make it an intriguing choice that always imbues a painting with additional layers of symbolism and psychological resonance. The multifaceted personality of purple gives artists an evocative, nuanced tool for expressing complexity, ambiguity, and challenging conventions in their work.