Reigning Violets

A small native Violet by a mossy stone in Japan

Violet (as a color) is on the spectrum, which might explain why it is so misunderstood. Isaac Newton, in deciding to designate seven colors to the rainbow, selected violet as his term for a marginally-visible band of light on the far side of blue, a band of color that (like the others) is a continuum of electromagnetic radiation (light waves.) We now understand violet is the most energetic light humans can detect – waves spanning the 380 to 450 nanometer range. Like Newton’s other colors, therefore, violet isn’t a single wavelength, rather a set of measurable possibilities.

But each spectral wavelength is incredibly pure, unadulterated color. In the natural world, pure spectral colors are not seen outside rainbows and chemical reactions. I’m hard pressed to match any natural flower or fruit to precise colors of the spectrum; it just isn’t going to happen.

Delphiniums, showing every hue from violet to blue

Colors we see in plants are multifarious, reflecting the impact of complex compounds held captive in many cellular components, wrapped in crystalline cellulose bindings, layered in multi-structural organs that are coated with chemical exudates. Light refracts and reflects its way through this organic jungle gym such that every emerging ray is distinct, projecting on our retinas as micro-mosaics that change continually, depending on angle and quality of lighting, atmosphere and water balance. Any description is, at best, an average, unavoidably subjective judgement varying from one person to another. Color, even more than beauty, is in the eye of the beholder.

An Australian Trailing Violet (Viola hederacea) at The Huntington

We shouldn’t be surprised, therefore, that one may never find a violet perfectly matching its namesake color. When I ask people about their descriptions of flowers that approximate some shade of pure, spectral violet*, responses invariably include other, more common color names — purple, lavender, mauve, lilac, and magenta.., even blue, suggesting that violet, as a color, has fallen into disuse, lingering at the edge of our thoughts. Not astonishing indeed; violet is at the edge of our perception, nearly fading away.

Rainbow over The Huntington, violet merging with darkened sky

Goethe, who quarreled with Newton’s physics, thought of violet as marginal, practically unnecessary, psychologically parenthetical to the richer reds, greens, and blues.** But we learned in 1801 that nature extends greater territory to the nearly invisible. After Herschel demonstrated there are unseen energetic heat waves at the red end of the visible spectrum, infra-red energy (a discovery made in 1800), Johann Riddle, a brilliant but undisciplined experimenter, went prospecting at the blue end of the visible spectrum, past violet, searching for the cool balance to Herschel’s warm energy. His intuition was on target; Riddle demonstrated existence of invisible radiation we now call ultraviolet light (UV, wavelengths shorter than 400 nanometers).

Today, UV gets more attention than violet. We know that bees, even many birds, see patterns of UV light imperceptible to us, patterns in flowers that serve as floral guides for gathering nectar or emanating from skin and feathers as mating cues.*** We also know UV helps generate Vitamin D, but initiates skin cancer with too much exposure.

Reining the discussion back to visible objects, a plant, the gentle violet seems to have been important enough over the centuries to draw attention to its cool coloring, such that ion, in ancient Greek, referred specifically to violets, as plants commonly recognized and admired. The modest Violet was even adopted as a symbol of Athens.^ It should be no surprise the relationship between this flower and violet as a hue has long-existed and was significant enough to have been adopted in Newton’s pantheon. The term even stretched to the point that the element iodine, characterized by violet-colored fumes, finds it etymological source with the Greek word for this small flower.

That means Violets and their quiet color were prominent historically, more than today, surfacing as symbols over and again, from links to funereal rites to icons for the Virgin Mary. Over the centuries, the flower and color rotated into regal associations, often spelled as purple, its rouged alter-ego. In the last century, violet became iconic with Women’s Suffrage.

Benjamin Moran Dale (1889–1951), for the National American Women’s Suffrage Association – United States Library of Congress’s Prints and Photographs

Perhaps the most noteworthy botanical link was the Napoleonic appropriation of Violets as symbolic of his return from Elba, an association noted by Paris-resident Helen Maria Williams, in her letters published as: A Narrative of the Events which Have Taken Place in France from the Landing of Napoleon Bonaparte on the First of March, 1815, Till the Restoration of Louis XVIII (with an account of the fate of society and public opinion at that period…  Huntington Rare Books, 373324.) Williams relates the Napoleonic association as unfortunate:

 “But on the morning of the 21st March the guilty, the triumphant violet appeared glaring in the button-hole of every Bonapartist’s coat, or stuck into his hat with all the ostentation of an order or a cockade. After such a profanation, how many springs must pass over the violet before its character will be retrieved and its purity appear unsullied!”

Williams was not alone in reviling Napoleon and his violets. In 1815, the same year as her letter, George Cruikshank issued a curious, satirical image of violets crowning Napoleon, in a dandelion growing out of a dungheap covered with mushrooms. This print, “The Peddigree of Colonel Violet”, is BM 12551, in the Huntington British Satirical Print Collection.

Just a few years later, in 1821, Percy Bysshe Shelley**** relied on more mournful associations “On a Faded Violet”:

THE ODOUR from the flower is gone
Which like thy kisses breathed on me;
The colour from the flower is flown
Which glowed of thee and only thee!

Mystery author Theta, in 1877 Poetical Recreations, attempted the rescue in a sonnet titled The Sweet-scented Violet:

Unsullied violet! so darkly blue, 
That lift'st thy lowly head above the ground, 
And with thy fragrance scent'st the garden round, 
How sweet art thou! 
The expressive Pansy is a modern derivative of Viola tricolor, a European native violet tied to many associations

The Violet as an emblem, and violet as color share curious parallels. Shakespeare focused on violets as lowly and nodding, sweet, and ephemeral. In Twelfth Night, he advances Viola as the central protagonist, masquerading as Cesario (think Sicilian notables and Roman ecclesiastics), while verbalizing her actual name once only, in the final moments (Act 5, Scene 1). Wordsworth tells us the violet shines solely when solitary. Emily Dickinson missed the unsuspected violet, the one that lay low. As a color, violet is understated, passing into the depths of our visual darkness – bearing determined humility.



**Goethe, I should note, wrote quite a sweet tragic song (Das Veilchen) about a Violet in his dramatic opera “Erwin and Elmire,” beginning: “A violet in the meadow stood, with humble brow, demure and good, it was the sweetest violet…” English translation from Wikipedia. As to colors: Goethe associated red with the “beautiful”, orange with the “noble”, yellow to the “good”, green to the “useful”, blue to the “common”, violet to the “unnecessary”. These six attributes were then assigned to four categories of human cognition.

***We also know the shorter UV waves are energetic enough to destroy biological systems, such that plants and animals have developed ways to detect and block penetration. Our corneas and lenses filter near and far UV respectively, something well-known to people who have had cataract surgery, which (without a new lens) renders them “aphakic” – which means the eye lacks a lens and is thus able to detect far UV due to the absence of that filter.

****Shelley friend, publisher, and poet Leigh Hunt is credited with first publishing the term “shrinking violet” in his writing: There was the buttercup, struggling from a white to a dirty yellow; and a faint-coloured poppy; and here and there by the thorny underwood a shrinking violet. 1820, The Indicator.

^The history of ion, viola, etc. is completely distinct from roots that gave rise to the use of viola and violin to designate types of string instruments. The same seems true of violent and violence, which evolved from yet other Latin roots involving force.

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