Goethe’s mystic colour theory

goethe thread cu - CopyJohann Wolfgang von Goethe published Theory of Colours in 1810.  He disagreed with Isaac Newton’s famous 1672 optical spectrum analysis, and was more interested in how colour is perceived.


Enlightenment artists and scientists were very engaged with quantifying colour. In 1708, French painter Claude Boutet based the above wheels on Newton’s findings.


In 1775, Austrian entomologist Ignaz Schiffermüller made this system to more precisely name insect colours.


In 1798-9, Goethe and Friedrich Schiller created the “rose of temperaments”, associating character traits, occupations and the historic four temperaments around a circle of colours.

illustration from Goethe’s Theory of Colours, first edition

Much was made over Theory of Colours being scientifically unsound. In 1840, the first English translation by Charles Eastlake purposely omitted the author’s objections to Newton because they “lacked scientific interest”.

goethe thread - Copy

This wheel illustrates the chapter called “Allegorical, symbolic, mystic use of colour”. Even in ongoing discussions – and there are many – it’s rarely mentioned that in 1810, colours came exclusively from natural sources.

The advent of synthetic dyes in 1856 had an immediate impact on how colour is made, confirming one aspect of Goethe’s views beyond doubt – optics had no bearing on the fact that perception of it had thus been changed, forever.

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