Theory of Colours

Theory of Colours

by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

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The wavelength theory of light and color had been firmly established by the time the great German poet published his Theory of Colours in 1810. Nevertheless, Goethe believed that the theory derived from a fundamental error, in which an incidental result was mistaken for a elemental principle. Far from affecting a knowledge of physics, he maintained that…  See more details below


The wavelength theory of light and color had been firmly established by the time the great German poet published his Theory of Colours in 1810. Nevertheless, Goethe believed that the theory derived from a fundamental error, in which an incidental result was mistaken for a elemental principle. Far from affecting a knowledge of physics, he maintained that such a background would inhibit understanding. The conclusions Goethe draws here rest entirely upon his personal observations.
This volume does not have to be studied to be appreciated. The author's subjective theory of colors permits him to speak persuasively of color harmony and aesthetics. These notions may evoke a positive response on their merits, but even among those who regard them as pure fantasy, the grace and style of Goethe's exposition provide abundant rewards. Although his scientific reasoning on this subject has long since been dismissed, modern readers continue to appreciate the beauty and sweep of Goethe's conjectures regarding the connection between color and philosophical ideas. In addition, he offers insights into early nineteenth-century beliefs and modes of thought as well as a taste of European life during the Enlightenment.

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Theory of Colours


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ISBN: 978-0-486-13595-3



5. The retina, after being acted upon by light or darkness, is found to be in two different states, which are entirely opposed to each other.

6. If we keep the eyes open in a totally dark place, a certain sense of privation is experienced. The organ is abandoned to itself; it retires into itself. That stimulating and grateful contact is wanting by means of which it is connected with the external world, and becomes part of a whole.

7. If we look on a white, strongly illumined surface, the eye is dazzled, and for a time is incapable of distinguishing objects moderately lighted.

8. The whole of the retina is acted on in each of these extreme states, and thus we can only experience one of these effects at a time. In the one case (6) we found the organ in the utmost relaxation and susceptibility; in the other (7) in an overstrained state, and scarcely susceptible at all.

9. 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.

11. The fact that the eyes is not susceptible to faint impressions of light, if we pass from light to comparative darkness, has led to curious mistakes in scientific observations. Thus an observer, whose eyes required some time to recover their tone, was long under the impression that rotten wood did not emit light at noon-day, even in a dark room. The fact was, he did not see the faint light, because he was in the habit of passing from bright sunshine to the dark room, and only subsequently remained so long there that the eye had time to recover itself.

The same may have happened to Doctor Wall, who, in the daytime, even in a dark room, could hardly perceive the electric light of amber.

Our not seeing the stars by day, as well as the improved appearance of pictures seen through a double tube, is also to be attributed to the same cause.

12. If we pass from a totally dark place to one illumined by the sun, we are dazzled. In coming from a lesser degree of darkness to light that is not dazzling, we perceive all objects clearer and better: hence eyes that have been in a state of repose are in all cases better able to perceive moderately distinct appearances.

Prisoners who have been long confined in darkness acquire so great a susceptibility of the retina, that even in the dark (probably a darkness very slightly illumined) they can still distinguish objects.

13. In the act which we call seeing, the retina is at one and the same time in different and even opposite states. The greatest brightness, short of dazzling, acts near the greatest darkness. In this state we at once perceive all the intermediate gradations of chiaroscuro, and all the varieties of hues.

14. We will proceed in due order to consider and examine these elements of the visible world, as well as the relation in which the organ itself stands to them, and for this purpose we take the simplest objects.



15. In the same manner as the retina generally is affected by brightness and darkness, so it is affected by single bright or dark objects. If light and dark produce different results on the whole retina, so black and white objects seen at the same time produce the same states together which light and dark occasioned in succession.

16. A dark object appears smaller than a bright one of the same size. Let a white disk be placed on a black ground, and a black disk on a white ground, both being exactly similar in size; let them be seen together at some distance, and we shall pronounce the last to be about a fifth part smaller than the other. If the black circle be made larger by so much, they will appear equal.

17. Thus Tycho de Brahe remarked that the moon in conjunction (the darker state) appears about a fifth part smaller than when in opposition (the bright full state). The first crescent appears to belong to a larger disk than the remaining dark portion, which can sometimes be distinguished at the period of the new moon. Black dresses make people appear smaller than light ones. Lights seen behind an edge make an apparent notch in it. A ruler, behind which the flame of a light just appears, seems to us indented. The rising or setting sun appears to make a notch in the horizon.

18. Black, as the equivalent of darkness, leaves the organ in a state of repose; white, as the representative of light, excites it. We may, perhaps, conclude from the above experiment (16) that the unexcited retina, if left to itself, is drawn together, and occupies a less space than in its active state, produced by the excitement of light.

Hence Kepler says very beautifully: "Certum est vel in retinâ caussâ picturæ, vel in spiritibus caussâ impressionis, exsistere dilatationem lucidorum."—Paralip. in Vitellionem, p. 220. Scherfer expresses a similar conjecture.—Note A.

19. However this may be, both impressions derived from such objects remain in the organ itself, and last for some time, even when the external cause is removed. In ordinary experience we scarcely notice this, for objects are seldom presented to us which are very strongly relieved from each other, and we avoid looking at those appearances that dazzle the sight. In glancing from one object to another, the succession of images appears to us distinct; we are not aware that some portion of the impression derived from the object first contemplated passes to that which is next looked at.

20. If in the morning, on waking, when the eye is very susceptible, we look intently at the bars of a window relieved against the dawning sky, and then shut our eyes or look towards a totally dark place, we shall see a dark cross on a light ground before us for some time.

21. Every image occupies a certain space on the retina, and of course a greater or less space in proportion as the object is seen near or at a distance. If we shut the eyes immediately after looking at the sun we shall be surprised to find how small the image it leaves appears.

22. If, on the other hand, we turn the open eye towards the side of a room, and consider the visionary image in relation to other objects, we shall always see it larger in proportion to the distance of the surface on which it is thrown. This is easily explained by the laws of perspective, according to which a small object near covers a great one at a distance.

23. The duration of these visionary impressions varies with the powers or structure of the eye in different individuals, just as the time necessary for the recovery of the tone of the retina varies in passing from brightness to darkness (10): it can be measured by minutes and seconds, indeed much more exactly than it could formerly have been by causing a lighted linstock to revolve rapidly, so as to appear a circle.—Note B.

24. But the force with which an impinging light impresses the eye is especially worthy of attention. The image of the sun lasts longest; other objects, of various degrees of brightness, leave the traces of their appearance on the eye for a proportionate time.

25. These images disappear by degrees, and diminish at once in distinctness and in size.

26. They are reduced from the contour inwards, and the impression on some persons has been that in square images the angles become gradually blunted till at last a diminished round image floats before the eye.

27. Such an image, when its impression is no more observable, can, immediately after, be again revived on the retina by opening and shutting the eye, thus alternately exciting and resting it.

28. Images may remain on the retina in morbid affections of the eye for fourteen, seventeen minutes, or even longer. This indicates extreme weakness of the organ, its inability to recover itself; while visions of persons or things which are the objects of love or aversion indicate the connexion between sense and thought.

29. If, while the image of the window-bars before mentioned lasts, we look upon a light grey surface, the cross will then appear light and the panes dark. In the first case (20) the image was like the original picture, so that the visionary impression also could continue unchanged; but in the present instance our attention is excited by a contrary effect being produced. Various examples have been given by observers of nature.

30. The scientific men who made observations in the Cordilleras saw a bright appearance round the shadows of their heads on some clouds. This example is a case in point; for, while they fixed their eyes on the dark shadow, and at the same time moved from the spot, the compensatory light image appeared to float round the real dark one. If we look at a black disk on a light grey surface, we shall presently, by changing the direction of the eyes in the slightest degree, see a bright halo floating round the dark circle.

A similar circumstance happened to myself: for while, as I sat in the open air, I was talking to a man who stood at a little distance from me relieved on a grey sky, it appeared to me, as I slightly altered the direction of my eyes, after having for some time looked fixedly at him, that his head was encircled with a dazzling light.

In the same way probably might be explained the circumstance that persons crossing dewy meadows at sunrise see a brightness round each other's heads; the brightness in this case may be also iridescent, as the phenomena of refraction come into the account.

Thus again it has been asserted that the shadows of a balloon thrown on clouds were bordered with bright and somewhat variegated circles.

Beccaria made use of a paper kite in some experiments on electricity. Round this kite appeared a small shining cloud varying in size; the same brightness was even observed round part of the string. Sometimes it disappeared, and if the kite moved faster the light appeared to float to and fro for a few moments on the place before occupied. This appearance, which could not be explained by those who observed it at the time, was the image which the eye retained of the kite relieved as a dark mass on a bright sky; that image being changed into a light mass on a comparatively dark background.

In optical and especially in chromatic experiments, where the observer has to do with bright lights whether colourless or coloured, great care should be taken that the spectrum which the eye retains in consequence of a previous observation does not mix with the succeeding one, and thus affect the distinctness and purity of the impression.

31. These appearances have been explained as follows: That portion of the retina on which the dark cross (29) was impressed is to be considered in a state of repose and susceptibility. On this portion therefore the moderately light surface acted in a more lively manner than on the rest of the retina, which had just been impressed with the light through the panes, and which, having thus been excited by a much stronger brightness, could only view the grey surface as a dark.

32. This mode of explanation appears sufficient for the cases in question, but, in the consideration of phenomena hereafter to be adduced, we are forced to trace the effects to higher sources.

33. The eye after sleep exhibits is vital elasticity more especially by its tendency to alternate its impressions, which in the simplest form change from dark to light, and from light to dark. 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.

34. Perhaps the peculiarly grateful sensation which we experience in looking at the skilfully treated chiaro-scuro of colour less pictures and similar works of art arises chiefly from the simultaneous impression of a whole, which by the organ itself is sought, rather than arrived at, in succession, and which, whatever may be the result, can never be arrested.


Excerpted from Theory of Colours by JOHANN WOLFGANG VON GOETHE, Charles Lock Eastlake. Copyright © 2006 Dover Publications, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Ludwig van Beethoven

Can you lend me The Theory of Colours for a few weeks?
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"Can you lend me The Theory of Colours for a few weeks? It is an important work. His latest things are insipid." Ludwig van Beethoven , Conversation-book, 1820

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