Tuesday, July 20, 2010
This year is the 200th anniversary of the publication of Goethe's Zür Farbenlehre (Theory of Colors) in 1810. Goethe was inordinately proud of his achievement in producing this vast tome. He stated “I am the only person in this century who has the right insight into the difficult science of colors...and that is what gives me the feeling that I have outstripped many.”
His sense of accomplishment was not misplaced. While Newton (for example) had viewed color perception as a physical phenomenon, the effect of light striking objects and entering our eyes, Goethe realized that it is also shaped by perception, which involves the way our brains process data. Goethe studied how colors produce somatic and emotional effects in the perceiver. His work on after-images, colored shadows and complementary colors was a major influence on artists and occultists. He anticipated Hering’s “opponent-color” theory, which is one basis of our modern understanding of the perception of colors.
The first plate of Zür Farbenlehre includes a color wheel and diagrams of distorted color perception. The landscape at the bottom depicts how a scene would look to someone who was blue-yellow color blind. Thanks to Tom Cheetham for alerting me to this.