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When was purple recognized as a color?

The history of the color purple is quite fascinating, as it was one of the last major colors to be distinguished and named. Here are some key facts about the recognition of purple as a distinct color:

Ancient Times

In ancient times, purple was closely associated with royalty and high status. This is because purple dyes were very difficult and expensive to produce.

  • The main source of purple dye was the mucus of certain mollusks found in the Mediterranean Sea.
  • It took thousands of mollusks to produce just a small amount of purple dye.
  • As a result, purple cloth became a status symbol among kings, emperors, and the wealthy elite in ancient societies.

However, even though purple was clearly distinct and special, it was not recognized as a separate color on its own. Purple was considered a variant of red or blue, not an independent color.

The Greeks and Romans

The ancient Greeks and Romans categorized colors into 4 main groups: yellow, red, black, and green. There was no distinction for blue or purple:

  • Purple shades were considered types of red.
  • Blue shades were considered types of green.

This began to change as purple dyes became more readily available to the Romans around 200 BCE. They started referring to purple shades specifically as “purpureus.” However, it was still considered a special type of red.

The Middle Ages

During the Middle Ages, purple retained its association with royalty in Europe. Medieval artists used the term “purple” but they did not categorize it as a unique color:

  • Purple was described as light or dark shades of red.
  • There were no standard words for blue or purple in most languages.

Mixing blue and red pigments could produce shades of purple, but this was not done consistently.

Renaissance and Modern Era

It was not until the mid-16th century, during the Renaissance, that purple started to be recognized as its own distinct color:

  • In 1570, Guy de la Brosse, a French botanist, published a book on flower colors that identified purple as a separate color.
  • Prior to this, most flower color names included shades of purple and violet.
  • His book separated purple into a distinct color category alongside red, yellow, green, blue, etc.

However, it took considerably longer for purple to gain wide recognition as a color:

  • In 1752, J.T. Desaguliers included purple as one of the seven primary colors, along with red, orange, green, blue, indigo and violet.
  • By the 1800s, purple was generally recognized as a distinct color in the color spectrums developed by Isaac Newton and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.

So while purple has been valued since ancient times, it was only around 400-500 years ago that it was established as an independent color in the Western tradition!

Key Milestones

Here are some of the key milestones in the recognition of purple as a distinct color:

Year Event
200 BCE Romans start referring specifically to “purpureus” shades
1570 Guy de la Brosse publishes flower color book identifying purple separately
1752 J.T. Desaguliers includes purple in list of primary colors
1800s Purple appears as distinct color in color spectrums


In summary, while valued for millennia as a prestigious dye, purple was not recognized as an independent color until the Renaissance era. It emerged from being considered a special shade of red to having its own unique place in color terminology and theory by the 1800s. Understanding the history helps appreciate how our perception and categorization of colors has evolved over centuries of human culture.