Wrong, but Important: Goethe's Science of Colors

The great German writer and polymath Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's Zur Farbenlehre (1810) is generally translated as On the Theory of Colors. Although Goethe (1749-1832) was quite wrong in his color theory, he did have some important insights, particularly about the perception of color and the fact that scientific ideas are often greatly influenced by their historical context. He concluded that color is formed only where light and dark are both present. One perceives the color yellow near the light and the color blue near the dark. He observed that if one looks at a bright light and then away from it, a yellowish spot appears. After several seconds, the yellow spot darkens to red and then finally becomes blue before the image fades entirely into darkness. Goethe designed a set of plates with explanations to accompany the text volumes of this work. In this hand-colored engraving, the little landscape at the bottom illustrates his point about reducing the distance between the colors yellow and blue, i.e., light and dark; the colors have blended into green and rose. Blue cannot be perceived at all. His color theory corresponded to the perception of color, but did not adequately explain the physical nature of light and color.


Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Zur Farbenlehre. Nebst einem Hefte mit sechzehn Kupfertafeln. Plate volume: Erklärung der zu Goethe's Farbenlehre gehörigen Tafeln. Tübingen: J.G. Cotta, 1810.
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