Art Versus Science: ‘Color Theory’ War Between Goethe And Newton

Goethe's Color Wheel, from his "Theory of Colours" (1810)

Goethe’s Color Wheel, from his “Theory of Colours” (1810)

Science and Art were not always friends

See this article published on SciArt in America, the source for Science-based art news.

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe is the Romantic writer whose poetic musings created timeless works of art inspiring generations of artists to come. Isaac Newton is the Enlightenment scientist whose experiments and theories of relativity changed the history of science. The Goethe-Newton duel between sparring color theories is a historic war between the arts and the sciences. The result is a draw, and Goethe’s Theory of Colours (1810) is a preliminary example of science-based art.

Isaac Newton's Famous Experiment in "Optics" (1704)

Isaac Newton’s Famous Experiment in “Optics” (1704)

Goethe’s Theory of Colours (1810) combines the objective reason of the 18th century Enlightenment with the subjective intuition of 19th century Romanticism. Goethe initiated his theory with a critique of the dominant color theory of the time: Newton’s Optics (1704). His was the first experimental proof of Galileo’s thesis, in which light was supposed to be “in reality” something mechanical and therefore quantifiable and a measurable phenomenon.

According to Newton, color was not a physiological process based solely on subjective sense perception, but was a constant measurement in regards to white light, making color a physical object existing outside of the body. White light had its own refrangability—the characteristic angle of refraction in a prism. As white light passes through a prism, the entire spectrum of colors is produced, each color with its own constant measurement. The property of objects, which causes us to call them colored, is its propensity to reflect one part of the spectrum more than another.

A century later, Goethe argued color was not solely a physical phenomenon, existing only as a measurable property within light. Color was not a segment within light, but a product of the harmonious mixture of light and dark. “Colour itself is a degree of darkness,” and all color is half-light. As he concludes, the color spectrum is not the splitting of light but the convergence of lightness and darkness.


One comment

  1. nikeyo · January 18, 2014

    This is making my brain hurt thinking about – probably because I’m quite tired at the moment.

    It rings of phenomenology, as well. That is, that what we observe is not necessarily of the object, but an interpretation of the object through our mind and sense’s filters. Color is an intriguing one… There are creatures within the animal kingdom who perceive colors we do not. There are others, who perceive less. It is still quite difficult for a human mind to truly conceive of what it means to perceive of “more” colors, that is, a broader spectrum than ours. It’s simply beyond our ability to comprehend.

    The very fact that this varying sensual experiences between species (and even people, with some partially and fully color-blind) begs that same question of if an object possesses the quality of color, or if it is something our brain produces.

    Great article, wonder thoughts it inspires in my head. Hmm….

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