The fuchsia: intense colour honours French victory

Magenta was invented by a French chemist and named after a clash during the Italian War of Independence

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The colour magenta was created by a French chemist, who named it after a battle between French-Sardinian forces and Austria which took place in a town of the same name in Italy on June 4, 1859.

The French claimed victory in this battle during the Italian War of Independence – and the new red colour was named in honour of the decisive outcome.

It was the period when chemists were just beginning to produce synthetic colours – blue and mauve had already been discovered – but a scientist in Lyon, François Emmanuel Verguin, was determined to find one of his own.

After several attempts he eventually came up with a colour which can be described as purplish-red, reddish-purple or even mauvish-crimson – and which we now know as magenta. He achieved the intense hue by heating an analine dye with tin tetrachloride.

He had the new colour patented and his procedure introduced a revolution in the dying industry. Little by little, the natural dye which had been used on soldiers’ trousers was replaced by the far cheaper magenta.

However, Mr Verguin was unable to benefit from his invention. He fell ill and did not have enough money to exploit the new colour.

He sold the patent at a low price to some established Lyonnais dyers, the Renard brothers in 1859, and they were able to produce it commercially.

They changed the name to fuchsine, after the fuchsia flower, but the name magenta is the one that survived.

In modern printing, it is one of the most important colours – one of the four inks used in CMYK colour printing process, where C is cyan, M is magenta, Y is yellow and K – which stands for ‘key’ or black.

The victory at Magenta was so important that it lent its name to a new commune in Marne (south of Reims) and a street, the Haussmann-created Boulevard de Magenta in Paris. Meanwhile artists such as Gauguin soon began using the colour on canvas – such as in Portrait of Marie Lagadu (1890).