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Arte on Goethe

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, who lived from 1749 to 1832, was indeed one of the greatest and most unexpected writers on colour, Zeuxis! Goethe’s amazing book was written around 1806, when Napoleon Buonaparte’s armies occupied Weimar after the Battle of Jena, but his book was printed only in 1810. Goethe’s views must have certainly been precursor ideas of the physiological theories of colour perception. Goethe’s English translator was the painter Charles Lock Eastlake, and I read that book. The English translation dates from 1840, and Eastlake added many notes proving his own erudition and knowledge of colour effects.

Goethe experimented with colour effects, maybe because he quickly observed that there was much more to light than a mere physical phenomenon. The effects puzzled his exquisite and poetic mind. He rejected Newton’s theories that colour was a function of light alone, and he had more sympathy for the old Aristotelian views. He wrote that colours arose in the eyes. He discussed psychological effects of colours, thereby emphasising the role of the mind in colour perception.

He started his book by remarking the effects on the eye of light and darkness, of black and white objects. He experimented with effects of the grey scale. Then he discussed coloured objects, and showed the existence of after-images, which had the complementary colour of the original object. He knew also that colourless spaces placed adjacently to a coloured one produce the complementary colour.
I was surprised that he did not experiment much with several colours placed next to each other, to find out whether something happened then to both the colours. Yet, he noted that the colours of the "active side" (such as yellow) placed next to black gained in energy, those of the passive side (such as blue) lost in energy. The active joined with white and brightness lost in strength, the passive colours gained in cheerfulness. He wrote that red and green with black appeared dark and grave; with white they appeared grey. He dwelled on the colour of shadows and on effects of faint lighting. He even embarked briefly on pathological effects of the eye, as a doctor might have done.

Then, Goethe began with his main theme: the interaction of light and matter. Goethe explained the change of colours when light passes through matter. He called these dioptrical colours. He experimented with light passing through very transparent mediums, and also through imperfectly transparent media. He experimented with light reflected on surfaces, his catoptrical colours. He looked at effects on the very surface such as in thin films or bubbles, and called these epoptical colours. He observed that when looking at bubbles of soap from various positions, other colours were seen. That was yet one more demonstration, Zeuxis, that indeed colours were not merely a property of the object itself. And he also discussed what happened when light passed on the edge of objects, what he called perioptical or paroptical colours.

After these long chapters of observation, Goethe talked about what he called "chemical colours", which he defined as the colours that can be produced in certain bodies and that have some duration, the colour proper to materials. He talked about the colour of metals and earths; how they progress when chemical changes were made to them.

Goethe knew the additive and subtractive mix of colours that you talked off. He called additive colours "apparent inter mixture". He remarked that yellow and blue powders mixed together appear grey to the naked eye, but when he looked through a magnifying glass and could still see the yellow and blue grains distinct from each other. Isn’t that a marvellous proof of the additive process? And then he said that when paints of all colours were mixed together they yielded black, which proves what we called the subtractive process!

Goethe observed the colours of minerals and of plants, even of worms, insects, birds and fishes. It struck me that he experimented to prove the warmth created by light. He let light shine through a yellow-red filter of glass so that it fell on a thermometer; this yielded a higher temperature than when he used a blue filter!

Other effects are puzzling to me, Zeuxis! Goethe told that he had seen that a dark object appears smaller than a light one of the same size. He said that was about a fifth part smaller.
Goethe did not really try to explain how colours were formed, even though he thought of colours like effects caused by differences in brightness and darkness, like Aristotle. He saw the effects and noted the results of his experiments. Goethe stressed the physiological phenomena and he also wrote a chapter on what he called the "Effect of colour with reference to moral associations", the psychological effects of colour perception. That is a surprising chapter, Zeuxis, and you will have to explain me more about that, because Goethe linked human emotions to colours.

Goethe’s observations were very astute. He explained for instance the theory of coloured shadows. Shadows that are thrown on a coloured surface take on the complementary colour of the medium the shadows fall on. He wrote, “in all coloured shadows we must presuppose a colour excited or suggested by the hue of the surface on which the shadow is thrown”. The shadow is in the complementary colour. You will have to explain later, Zeuxis, at more length, what is meant by "complementary" colour.

Goethe’s primary colours were yellow, blue and red and his complementary colours were then respectively red-blue, red-yellow and green.

Goethe was very much interested also in the secrets of the harmony of colours. He wrote that there were three leading rubrics in colours: the powerful, the soft and the splendid.
Powerful colours were yellow, yellow-red and red. These were active colours. Violet and blue, and in a lesser way green, were not as powerful.
Soft colours of the passive side were blue and violet. Green was for Goethe also a very passive colour. Soft were equally moderate additions to these of yellow-red and red-yellow. In each of these two categories the complementary colours were to be excluded to a minimum. Goethe called these two scales of colours harmonious when they were placed together.
But the full harmonious effect, he said, was only created when all colours were exhibited together in due balance, and Goethe called this the splendid.
When all the basic hues were applied together in a picture, then these together only constituted harmony. Goethe thought probably of a circle of six colours only. Combinations of powerful and soft colours on their own and only were agreeable, but the splendid was all the chromatic scale of colours together in due balance.

Goethe also regarded complementary colours as harmonious combinations, but he thought that close colours were "without character". He saw "character" only in colours that were neither complementary ones, nor close in hue. He thus did not like so much colours that were not on opposite sides in the colour circle, or the colours that were contiguous in the circle. He did not much emphasise differences in tone or intensity.

Goethe also saw a spiritual meaning in the mixing of colours. He spoke of yellow and blue as basic colours. Mixing yellow and blue produced green first, the earthly. He wrote that it produced red in their intense state, the heavenly, generation of Elohim.

You have told me, Zeuxis, how colours have intrigued philosophers, scientists and artists since the first periods of European interrogation of nature. In the new scientific age, from the eighteenth century on, the natural phenomena were studied in a scientific, methodical way based on observation. Colour was in those periods neglected. There were so many more other, more easy subjects to study. It is remarkable how people like Johan Wolfgang von Goethe by a particular interest, stumbled into the fascinating domain of the study of colour almost by chance. Goethe was an artist, but not an artist of the visual arts.
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe seems to me to have been a good example of a person who was very puzzled by the effects of colour, and who wrote on almost all the qualities of the strange phenomena associated with colours. He proceeded from physical observation to psychological effects.
This is the range we are confronted with when we speak of colour and of course, in the long end we I will be most interested in criteria that might define the harmony of colours. Harmony is what makes a painting instantly agreeable to viewers, I believe.

I believe that my ultimate goal, Zeuxis dear, should therefore clearly be to seek rules of harmony of colours – if they exist as universal rules. And then, we can ask ourselves, Zeuxis, whether harmony is the only effect that viewers demand of colour, just as we spoke of harmony of forms and found that also the breaking of harmony may be pleasing.

Copyright: René Dewil Back to the navigation screen (if that screen has been closed) Last updated: June 2010
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