Goethe’s Colorful & Abstract Illustrations for His 1810 Treatise, Theory of Colors: Scans of the First Edition


The great Jew­ish philoso­pher Baruch Spin­oza, it is said, drew his con­cep­tions of god and the uni­verse from his work as an opti­cian, grind­ing lens­es day after day. He lived a life sin­gu­lar­ly devot­ed to glass, in which his “evenings to evenings are equal.” So wrote Jorge Luis Borges in a poet­ic appre­ci­a­tion of Spin­oza, of which he lat­er com­ment­ed, “[Spin­oza] is pol­ish­ing crys­tal lens­es and is pol­ish­ing a rather vast crys­tal phi­los­o­phy of the uni­verse. I think we might con­sid­er those tasks par­al­lel. Spin­oza is pol­ish­ing his lens­es, Spin­oza is pol­ish­ing vast dia­monds, his ethics.”


The pol­ish­ing of lens­es, and work in optics gen­er­al­ly, has a long philo­soph­i­cal pedi­gree, from the exper­i­ments of Renais­sance artists and schol­ars, to the nat­ur­al philoso­phers of the Sci­en­tif­ic Rev­o­lu­tion who made their own micro­scopes and pon­dered the nature of light. Over a cen­tu­ry after Spinoza’s birth, poly­math artist and thinker Johann Wolf­gang von Goethe pub­lished his great work on optics, just one of many direc­tions he turned his gaze. Unlike Spin­oza, Goethe had lit­tle use for con­cepts of divin­i­ty or for sys­tem­at­ic think­ing.


But unlike many free­think­ing aris­to­crat­ic dilet­tantes who were a fix­ture of his age, Goethe–-writes poet Philip Brant­i­ng­ham—“was a uni­ver­sal genius, one of those tal­ents whose works tran­scend race, nation, lan­guage-and even time.” It’s a dat­ed con­cept, for sure, but when we think of genius in the old Roman­tic sense, we most often think of Goethe, as a poet, philoso­pher, and sci­en­tist. When he turned his atten­tion to optics and the sci­ence of col­or, Goethe refut­ed the the­o­ries of New­ton and cre­at­ed some endur­ing sci­en­tif­ic art, which would lat­er inspire philo­soph­i­cal icon­o­clasts like Wittgen­stein and expres­sion­ist painters like Wass­i­ly Kandin­sky.


We’ve fea­tured Goethe’s most impor­tant sci­en­tif­ic work, Zur Far­ben­lehre (The­o­ry of Col­ors), in a pre­vi­ous post. Now we can bring you the supe­ri­or images above, from a first edi­tion scan at Stockholm’s Hager­stromer Med­ical Library, who host a col­lec­tion of scanned illus­tra­tions from dozens of first edi­tions of nat­u­ral­ist texts. The col­lec­tion spans a once sup­pressed phys­i­ol­o­gy text by Descartes—anoth­er optics the­o­rist—to Rachel Carson’s 1962 Silent Spring, the book that “launched the mod­ern con­ser­va­tion­ist move­ment.” In-between, find scans of illus­tra­tions and pho­tographs from the works of Carl Lin­naeus, Charles Dar­win, Louis Pas­teur, and dozens of oth­er nat­ur­al philoso­phers and sci­en­tists who made sig­nif­i­cant con­tri­bu­tions to med­ical sci­ence.


In the case of Goethe’s The­o­ry of Col­ors (1810), we get a high-qual­i­ty look at the images in what the author him­self con­sid­ered his best work. “Known as a fierce attack on Newton’s demon­stra­tion that white light is com­pos­ite,” writes the Hager­stromer Library, “Goethe’s colour the­o­ry remains an epochmak­ing work.” Goethe’s illus­tra­tions came direct­ly from “a large num­ber of obser­va­tions of sub­jec­tive colour-per­cep­tions, record­ed with all the exact­ness of a sci­en­tist and the keen insight of an artist.” It’s part­ly the bridg­ing of sci­ences and the arts—of Enlight­en­ment and Romanticism—that has made Goethe such a remark­able fig­ure in Euro­pean intel­lec­tu­al his­to­ry. But as many of the fine­ly illus­trat­ed, care­ful­ly observed texts at the Hager­stromer Med­ical Library show, he wasn’t alone in that regard.


In addi­tion to these clas­sic texts, the Hager­stromer also hosts the Wun­derkam­mer, an eclec­tic archive of (often quite bizarre) nat­u­ral­ist images and illus­tra­tions from the 16th to the 20th cen­turies. One MetaFil­ter user describes the col­lec­tion thus:

Wun­derkam­mer is a col­lec­tion of high res­o­lu­tion images from old books in the Hagströmer Med­ical Library. Some of my favorites are sea anemonesnerve cellsroost­er chas­ing off a mon­ster16th Cen­tu­ry eye surgerymus­cles and bones of the hand and armele­phant-head­ed humanoid and cup­ping. It can also be browsed by tag, bro­ken up into sub­ject (e.g. beast), emo­tion (e.g. strange), tech­nique (e.g. chro­molith­o­g­ra­phy) and era (e.g. 18th Cen­tu­ry).

via Metafil­ter

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Down­load 100,000+ Images From The His­to­ry of Med­i­cine, All Free Cour­tesy of The Well­come Library

Old Book Illus­tra­tions: Free Archive Lets You Down­load Beau­ti­ful Images From the Gold­en Age of Book Illus­tra­tion

The British Library Puts 1,000,000 Images into the Pub­lic Domain, Mak­ing Them Free to Reuse & Remix

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

by | Permalink | Comments (1) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.