Goethe's Theory of Colours
This work by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832) was translated into English in 1840 by Sir Charles Eastlake (1793-1865), painter and later keeper of the National Gallery. Goethe's 1810 work was rejected by many contemporary scientists because it appeared to contradict the physical laws laid down by Newton. However, its focus on the human perception of the colour spectrum, as opposed to the observable optical phenomenon, was attractive to, and influential upon, artists and philosophers. As Eastlake says in his preface, the work's dismissal on scientific grounds had caused 'a well-arranged mass of observations and experiments, many of which are important and interesting', to be overlooked. Eastlake also puts Goethe's work into its aesthetic and scientific context and describes its original reception. His clear translation of Goethe's observations and experiments on colour and light will appeal to anyone interested in our responses to art.
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according alluded already appear appearance of colour assumed attention beautiful become blue bright called cause chemical circle colourless colours combined complete considered contrast dark described direction doctrine edge effect employed especially examples excited exhibit experiments express fact figure give glass Goethe green grey ground halos hand important impression increased instance kind less light look manner means medium method mode namely nature necessary NOTE object observed once opening opposite organ original owing painters painting pass perhaps phenomena phenomenon physical plate portion powerful practice present principle prism produced pure question reference reflection refraction relation remains remarkable respecting result retina says seen sense shadows side similar sometimes speak square substances surface takes place theory tion transparent various Venetian violet whole yellow yellow-red
Page 385 - This passage, though it may possibly perplex the critics, is a true and an artist-like description of the effect of glazing or scumbling, such as was practised by Titian and the rest of the Venetian painters. This custom, or mode of operation, implies at least a true taste of that in which the excellence of colouring consists : which does not proceed from fine colours, but true colours ; from breaking down these fine colours which would appear too raw, to a deeptoned brightness. Perhaps the manner...
Page 11 - The eye cannot for a moment remain in a particular state determined by the object it looks upon. On the contrary, it is forced to a sort of opposition, which, in contrasting extreme with extreme, intermediate degree with intermediate degree, at the same time combines these opposite impressions, and thus ever tends to a whole, whether the impressions are successive, or simultaneous and confined to one image.
Page 329 - In a narrower sense a mass of shadow lighted by reflexes is often thus designated ; but we here use the expression in its first and more general sense. 851. The separation of light and dark from all appearance of colour is possible and necessary. The artist will solve the mystery of imitation sooner by first considering light and dark independently of colour, and making himself acquainted with it in its whole extent.
Page 1 - If we pass suddenly from the one state to the other, even without supposing these to be the extremes, but only, perhaps, a change from bright to dusky, the difference is remarkable, and we find that the effects last for some time. 10. In passing from bright daylight to a dusky place we distinguish nothing at first : by degrees the eye recovers its susceptibility ; strong eyes sooner than weak ones ; the former in a minute, while the latter may require seven or eight minutes.
Page 366 - At a certain distance — the colour being always assumed to be unimpaired by interposed atmosphere — the reflections appear kindled to intenser warmth ; the fiery glow of Giorgione is strikingly apparent ; the colour is seen in its largest relation ; the macchia,^ an expression so emphatically used by Italian writers, appears in all its quantity, and the reflections being the focus of warmth, the hue seems to deepen in shade.
Page 312 - The effect of this colour is as peculiar as its nature ; it conveys an impression of gravity and dignity, and at the same time of grace and attractiveness. The first, in its deep dark state ; the latter, in its lighter tint, and thus suits both the aged and the young. Green. — The eye experiences a healthy and peculiarly grateful impression from this...
Page 296 - ... Theory of Colours (Farbenlehre) stressed the unity of nature: 'Throughout nature, as presented to the senses, everything depends on the relation which things bear to each other, but especially on the relation which man, the most important of these, bears to the rest.'141 He spoke of his goal, which was to 'rescue the attractive subject of the doctrine of colours from the atomic restriction and isolation in which it has been banished, in order to restore it to the general dynamic flow of life...
Page 60 - ... which becomes paler as the density of the medium is increased ; but on the contrary becomes darker and deeper as the medium becomes more transparent. In the least degree of dimness short of absolute transparency, the deep blue becomes the most beautiful violet.
Page 21 - On the 19th of June, 1799, late in the evening, when the twilight was deepening into a clear night, as I was walking up and down the garden with a friend, we very distinctly observed a flame-like appearance near the oriental poppy, the flowers of which are remarkable for their powerful red colour. We approached the place, and looked attentively at the flowers, but could perceive nothing further, till at last, by passing and repassingrepeatedly, while we looked side-ways on them, we succeeded in renewing...
Page 376 - Mr. Eastlake observes (Goethe on Colours, p. 378), " the secret of Van Eyck and his contemporaries is always assumed to consist in the vehicle (varnish or oils) he employed ; but a far more important condition of the splendour of colour of the works of those masters was the careful preservation of internal light by painting thinly, but ultimately with great force, on white grounds.