Peach Blossom Colour. From Dyeing to Colour Theory

Sample of “Fleur de Pecher” in Paul Gout, Memoires de Teinture, c. 1763, p. 52, private owner, photo credits: Dominique Cardon

Abstract: Was Goethe’s theory of colours permeated by the colour knowledge and terminology of practitioners? In this regard, Goethe’s term Pfirsichblüth or Pfirsichblüthroth reveals a striking connection to the practice of dying. / Wurde Goethes Farbenlehre vom Farbwissen und von der Terminologie der Praktiker durchdrungen? Goethes Begriff „Pfirsichblüth“ oder „Pfirsichblüthroth“ zeigt in dieser Hinsicht eine auffällige Verbindung zur Färberpraxis.

Magenta in the inverted spectrum, detail of a photo of the inverted border spectrum, photographed directly and through a prism, 2009, photo credits: S.Wetzel, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons.
Johann Goethe’s colour circle, in: Wolfgang von Goethe, Zur Farbenlehre. Erklärung der Kupfertafeln, 1810, plate 1, detail; photo credits: Staatliche Bibliothek Regensburg, Inkunabelmagazin IM, 999 IM/4Germ.70, detail. no copyright

In 1791, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe announced the identification of magenta, an extra-spectral colour, in Beyträge zur Optik (Contributions to Optics). This colour was visible at the centre of the so-called ‘inverted spectrum,’ produced through the inversion of light and shadow within the optical arrangement, revealing complementary colours to the ordinary spectrum (fig. 1).

Goethe called this central colour within the inverted spectrum “a beautiful Pfirsichblüth” (peach blossom, see illustration). In his Farbenlehre (1810), he refers to magenta as a sort of red (Pfirsichblüthroth = peach blossom red) or purple (Purpur) colour and compares it to a colourant produced with American cochineal. Within Goethe’s colour theory, this type of red is the purest red of all, which he places next to Gelbrot (orange) in his colour circle. It is likely ­– although unconfirmed – that he painted his extra-spectral Pfirsichblüthroth with a pigment, such as carmine, made with cochineal (fig. 2).

Where Goethe got this colour name from it is still up for debate. Perhaps he was inspired by Christian Friedrich Prange’s Farbenlexicon (1782); Goethe’s copy is now held at the Herzogin Anna Amalia Bibliothek in Weimar. The book comprises 4,608 different colour samples, including 16 shades of Pfirsichblütroth (spelled without Goethe’s h) on plate five (nos. 81-96, fig. 3). That being said, Prange’s peach blossom reds, made with various combinations of azurite, carmine and white, look – unlike Goethe’s peach blossom – more violet than red.

More likely, Goethe borrowed the colour term Pfirsichblüthroth from the colour nomenclature for mineralogists produced by his Freiberg Professor Abraham Gottlob Werner in 1774. Werner describes this variation of red as a lighter version of cochineal red. Although he does not reveal his source for the term, Werner explains that the hue matches the colour of the blossoms of a peach tree (Prunus persica), possibly meaning the point where the filaments connect at the base of the flower, exposing an intense magenta hue (fig. 4).

Colour chart number five (Tabelle V ), in: Christian Friedrich Prange, Farbenlexicon, 1782, Sächsische Landesbibliothek – Staats- und Universitätsbibliothek Dresden, Technol.B.168.m, Public Domain Mark 1.0
Painted samples of “Florentijn Lack” (a cochineal lake pigment), in: A.v.d. Boogert, Klaer lightende spiegel der verfkonst, 1692, Bibliothèque Méjanes, Aix-en-Province, Ms.1389 (1228), p. 35r, no copyright.
Peach blossoms, photo credits: wikimedia commons CC BY-SA 3.0

Werner’s use of this colour word likely stems from the practice of dyeing. Dyers are famous for their incredibly creative colour vocabulary, and among the names used to label the tints and shades they could produce with American cochineal, one can find (especially in French sources) reference to fleur de pêcher (peach blossom). In “Not Only Red: Cochineal in the Eighteenth-Century European Woolen Cloth Industry,” Dominique Cardon explains that this fleur de pêcher colour is produced through a process developed to recycle scarlet dye-baths made with American cochineal, tin mordant and tartar. The scarlet tin-mordant bath was serendipitously discovered by Cornelis Drebbel in the seventeenth century. Its brighter tints were surely known to the Kufflers, Drebbel’s sons-in-law, who made a fortune with a dyeworks near London. This process revolutionized late seventeenth and early eighteenth-century dyeing because it made the production of – traditionally very expensive – scarlet-coloured fabrics much cheaper. Drebbel and the Kufflers’ red dyes were known as Écarlate d’Hollande, “Bow-Dye” or “Bow-Scarlet” and praised by Robert Boyle as “true scarlet dye.” Soon the much-coveted secret process was used at the Gobelin manufacture in Paris, as well as other French dyeworks. In 1763, for instance, the French chemist Pierre-Joseph Macquer described a pink colour named fleurs de pêcher, produced with a recycled bath of cochineal. Moreover, that fleur de pêcher is the result of recycling the Écarlate d’Hollande is evidenced by a dyeing manual compiled around 1763 by Languedocian dyer Paul Gout. In his manual, Gout pasted a swatch of fleur de pêcher and wrote down the instructions for how to reproduce it (see main illustration). Although it is impossible to tell whether the original colour of the fabric remains (which, in its current state, is more reminiscent of the fruit than the blossom of a peach tree), Gout places the sample and the recipe for fleur de pêcher among the mauve and lilac hues, implying that, even for dyers, this recycled red veers slightly in the direction of blue. Interestingly, this is the typical appearance of carmine pigment samples painted in distemper (fig. 5) – the same colour that Goethe described as “an absolutely pure red.” In turn, the carmine hue is equalled in Goethe’s colour theory by the extra-spectral red that we call magenta today.

It thus becomes clear that the materials likely used to wash the plates of Goethe’s Farbenlehre and the colour terminology Goethe used to describe his newly discovered extra-spectral red were intimately connected. Goethe’s choice to call it Pfirsichblüthroth was thus not only poetic, but also very much practice-based.

To what extent the colour terminology and the knowledge produced by practitioners permeated Goethe’s theory of colours remains an open question – to be investigated further within the research project “Colour Orders, Colourants and Colour Terminology.”

Text: Giulia Simonini

Empfohlene Zitation/ Suggested citation: Giulia Simonini: Peach Blossom Colour. From Dyeing to Colour Theory, in: Spotlight, hrsg./ed. by Dimensionen der techne in den Künsten,, 07.01.2022 [Abrufdatum / Date of Access].

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