On August 28, 1749, famous German writer and statesman Johann Wolfgang von Goethe was born. Besides his merits in literature, poetry, and philosophy, that we already did acknowledge in previous articles [4,5,9], Goethe was also interested in natural sciences. He independently discovered the human intermaxillary bone in 1784, was one of the many precursors in the history of evolutionary thought, popularized the Goethe barometer using a principle established by Torricelli, and published his Theory of Colours in 1810, which he considered his most important work. In his Farbenlehre (Theory of Colours), Goethe was vehemently opposed to Newton’s analytic treatment of color, but nevertheless his theory failed.
Goethe’s Theory of Colours
By the time Johann Wolfgang von Goethe developed his interest in natural sciences, Isaac Newton’s color theory was already generally acknowledged. However, as Goethe later wrote
“… as I looked at a white wall through the prism, that it stayed white! That only where it came upon some darkened area, it showed some colour, then at last, around the window sill all the colours shone… It didn’t take long before I knew here was something significant about colour to be brought forth, and I spoke as through an instinct out loud, that the Newtonian teachings were false.” 
With this starting point, Goethe developed his “theory” while at the same time refraining from setting up a theory, as he put it “its intention is to portray rather than explain“. Goethe proceeded to develop a wide range of interrogations through which he would reveal the essential character of color. As it was later explained by David Seamon, “the crux of [Goethe’s] color theory is its experiential source: rather than impose theoretical statements, Goethe sought to allow light and color to be displayed in an ordered series of experiments that readers could experience for themselves“. In his essay ‘The experiment as mediator between subject and object‘ from 1772, Goethe outlined his method and put an emphasis on his standpoint:
“The human being himself, to the extent that he makes sound use of his senses, is the most exact physical apparatus that can exist.”
Experiments and Observations
In concerns of light and dark, Goethe understood darkness as polar to and interacting with light and color as the result of the interaction of light and shadow. Goethe performed experiments which examined the effects of turbid media like air, dust and moisture on the perception of light and dark. He made the observation that light seen through a turbid medium appears yellow, and darkness seen through an illuminated medium appears blue.
Violet is unnecessary
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe also proposed a symmetric color wheel and put emphasis on the importance of magenta, in contrast to Newton, who counted only spectral colors as fundamental. In his color wheel, Goethe also included several aesthetic qualities titled as “allegorical, symbolic, mystic use of colour“. Goethe apparently associated red with ‘beautiful’, green with ‘useful’, violet with ‘unnecessary’ and blue with ‘common’.
The first edition of Zur Farbenlehre was published in an edition of 500 copies on white paper and 250 copies on gray paper by Cotta’sche Verlagsbuchhandlung. It contained three sections: a didactic section in which Goethe presents his own observations, a section in which he makes his case against Newton, and a historical section. In the same year, the mathematician, physicist, and astronomer Carl Brandan Mollweide refuted Goethe’s view of the origin of colors in the paper Prüfung der Farbenlehre des Herrn v. Goethe und Vertheidigung des Newton’schen Systems wider dieselbe (Examination of Mr. v. Goethe’s Theory of Colors and Defense of Newton’s System Against It), which was published in Halle (Saale). When it was translated by Charles Eastlake into English in 1840, he left out the part were Goethe made his case against Newton. Goethe’s experiments probe the complexities of human colour perception. While Newton sought to develop a mathematical model for the behaviour of light, Goethe focused on exploring how colour is perceived in a wide array of conditions. Edwin Land’s retinex theory from 1971 show many similarities to Goethe’s theory. Unlike Newton, Goethe’s concern was not so much with the analytic treatment of colour, as with the qualities of how phenomena are perceived. Philosophers have come to understand the distinction between the optical spectrum, as observed by Newton, and the phenomenon of human colour perception as presented by Goethe — a subject analyzed at length by Wittgenstein in his comments on Goethe’s theory in Remarks on Colour.
Goethe’s Self Assessment
Goethe himself valued the results of his research on color more highly than his entire literary output. Even in his old age, he said to his secretary Johann Peter Eckermann:
“I do not imagine anything about everything I have achieved as a poet. […] But the fact that I am the only one in my century who knows what is right in the difficult science of color theory is something I take credit for.”
Pehr Sällström, On the compatibility of Goethe’s colour theory with that of Newton | colour.education 
References and Further Reading:
-  Goethe’s Theory of Color
-  Exploratory experimentation: Goethe, land, and color theory
-  Theory of Colours at MIT
-  The Life and Works of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, SciHi Blog
-  Goethe’s Muse Charlotte von Stein, SciHi Blog
-  Goethe Got Married, SciHi Blog
-  Goethe, Goethes Werke, Weimar: Hermann Böhlau, 1887–1919, II. Abtheilung: Naturwissenschaftliche Schriften, Bd. 4, pp. 295–296
-  Standing on the Shoulders of Giants – Sir Isaac Newton, SciHi Blog
-  Goethe’s Most Famous Poem – Wanderers Nachtlied, SciHi Blog
-  John Tyndall, “Goethe’s Farbenlehre-(Theory of Colors) I“, in Popular Science Monthly, Vol. 17, June 1880.
-  John Tyndall, “Goethe’s Farbenlehre-(Theory of Colors) II“, in Popular Science Monthly, Vol. 17, July 1880.
-  Duck, Michael J (1988). “Newton and Goethe on colour: Physical and physiological considerations”. Annals of Science. 45 (5): 507–519
-  Pehr Sällström, On the compatibility of Goethe’s colour theory with that of Newton, at Philosophicum Basel, colour.education @ youtube
-  Johann Wolfgang von Goethe at Wikidata
-  Timeline for Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, via Wikidata