Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and his Theory of Colours

Goethe's symmetric colour wheel

Goethe’s symmetric colour wheel with associated symbolic qualities

On August 28, 1749, famous German writer and statesman Johann Wolfgang von Goethe was born. Besides his merrits in literature, poetry, and philosophy, that we already did acknowledge in previous articles, 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 Theory of Colours, Goethe was vehemently opposed to Newton’s analytic treatment of color, but nevertheless his theory failed.

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 proceded 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 essayThe experiment as mediator between subject and object’ from 1772Goethe outlines his method and puts 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.”

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.

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 Goethe’s Color Theory was printed in 1810 and 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. Right from the start, the book was controversially discussed and 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.

At yovisto academic search engine you can learn more in a lecture about ‘Colour’ by Professor William Ayliffe at Gresham College.

References and Further Reading:


One comment

  • Thanks Tabea, for a well written introduction outlining a brief context in history of Goethe’s work on Colour as well as its general place within the natural sciences. Your article receives the stamp of approval!


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