Thursday, November 5, 2009

Theory of Colours by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

I was curious about this book because I've come across mention of it numerous times, usually in reference to its influence on the work of impressionist painters. Published in 1810 (first English translation 1840), it was surprisingly easy to understand. I did get a bit bogged down with all of the experiments because I didn't try them myself, only imagined their results as Goethe described them - they involved setting up coloured disks on different coloured backgrounds in specific lighting conditions; prisms; opalescent panes of glass and stuff like that.

Goethe did not believe Newton's wavelength theory of colour was correct. I knew this before I even started reading, yet it was startling to come across the following explanation for why shadows on snow may appear violet, blue, or yellow - "accidental vapours diffused in the air." He is a product of his time, of course: "it is worthy of remark that savage nations, uneducated people, and children have a predilection for vivid colours; that animals are excited to rage by certain colours; that people of refinement avoid vivid colours in their dress and the objects that are about them, and seem inclined to banish them altogether from their presence."

In 1820, Ludwig van Beethoven wrote: "Can you lend me the Theory of Colours for a few weeks? It is an important work. His last things are insipid." Other people are still lining up to read this. I'm only halfway through but I can't renew the book because someone else has requested it. I'll wear my pink coat and red hat to return it to the library.

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