The Vibrant Color Wheels Designed by Goethe, Newton & Other Theorists of Color (1665–1810)

Maybe it’s the clois­tered headi­ness of Rene Descartes, or the rig­or­ous aus­ter­i­ty of Isaac New­ton; maybe it’s all the leath­ern breach­es, gray waist­coats, sal­low faces, and pow­dered wigs… but we tend not to asso­ciate Enlight­en­ment Europe with an explo­sion of col­or the­o­ry. Yet, philoso­phers of the late 17th and 18th cen­turies were obsessed with light and sight. Descartes wrote a trea­tise on optics, as did New­ton.

New­ton first described in his 1672 Opticks the “rev­o­lu­tion­ary new the­o­ry of light and colour,” the Uni­ver­si­ty of Cam­bridge Whip­ple Library writes, “in which he claimed that exper­i­ments with prisms proved that white light was com­prised of light of sev­en dis­tinct colours.” Sci­en­tists debat­ed Newton’s the­o­ry “well into the 19th cen­tu­ry.”

One ear­ly oppo­nent famous­ly illus­trat­ed his rebut­tal. Poet, writer, and sci­en­tist Johann Wolf­gang von Goethe pub­lished The­o­ry of Col­ors (see here), with its care­ful­ly hand-drawn and col­ored dia­grams and wheels, in 1809. From New­ton’s time onward, col­or the­o­rists elab­o­rat­ed pre­vail­ing con­cepts with col­or wheels, the first attrib­uted to New­ton in 1704 (and drawn in black and white, above).

Newton’s wheel “arranged red, orange, yel­low, green, blue, indi­go, and vio­let into a nat­ur­al pro­gres­sion on a rotat­ing disk.” Four years lat­er, painter Claude Boutet made his 7‑color and 12-col­or cir­cles (top), based on Newton’s the­o­ries. Artists, chemists, map­mak­ers, poets, even ento­mol­o­gists… every­one seemed to have a pet the­o­ry of col­or, gen­er­al­ly accom­pa­nied by elab­o­rate col­ored charts and dia­grams.

The col­or wheel was one among many forms—which often pre­sent­ed con­trast­ing the­o­ries, like that of Jacques-Fabi­en Gau­ti­er, who argued that black and white were pri­ma­ry col­ors. But the wheel, and Newton’s basic ideas about it, have endured almost unchanged. The wheel fur­ther up (third one from top) by British ento­mol­o­gist Moses Har­ris from 1776 shows Newton’s 7‑color scheme sim­pli­fied to the 6 pri­ma­ry and sec­ondary col­ors we usu­al­ly see, arranged in the com­ple­men­tary and anal­o­gous scheme, with ter­tiary gra­da­tions between them. Anoth­er ento­mol­o­gist, Ignaz Schif­fer­müller, drew the 12-col­or wheel right above.

Col­or is always rep­re­sen­ta­tive. Newton’s orig­i­nal wheel includ­ed “musi­cal notes cor­re­lat­ed with col­or.” By the end of the 18th cen­tu­ry, col­or the­o­ry had become increas­ing­ly tied to psy­cho­log­i­cal the­o­ries and typolo­gies, as in the wheel above, the “rose of tem­pera­ments,” made by Goethe and Friedrich Schiller in 1789 to illus­trate “human occu­pa­tions and char­ac­ter traits,” the Pub­lic Domain Review notes, includ­ing “tyrants, heroes, adven­tur­ers, hedo­nists, lovers, poets, pub­lic speak­ers, his­to­ri­ans, teach­ers, philoso­phers, pedants, rulers,” grouped into the four tem­pera­ments of humoral the­o­ry.

It’s a fair­ly short leap from these psy­cholo­gies of col­or to those used by adver­tis­ers and com­mer­cial design­ers in the 20th century—or from the artists and sci­en­tists’ col­or the­o­ries to abstract expres­sion­ism, the Bauhaus school, and the chemists and pho­tog­ra­phers who recre­at­ed the col­ors of the world on film. (Goethe’s col­or wheel, below, from The­o­ry of Col­or, illus­trates his chap­ter on “Alle­gor­i­cal, sym­bol­ic, and mys­ti­cal use of colour.”) See more ear­ly col­or wheels, like Philipp Otto Runge’s 1810 Far­benkugel, as well as oth­er con­cep­tu­al col­or schemes, at the Pub­lic Domain Review.

via Pub­lic Domain Review

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Goethe’s The­o­ry of Col­ors: The 1810 Trea­tise That Inspired Kandin­sky & Ear­ly Abstract Paint­ing

How Tech­ni­col­or Rev­o­lu­tion­ized Cin­e­ma with Sur­re­al, Elec­tric Col­ors & Changed How We See Our World

A Pre-Pan­tone Guide to Col­ors: Dutch Book From 1692 Doc­u­ments Every Col­or Under the Sun

Sir Isaac Newton’s Papers & Anno­tat­ed Prin­cip­ia Go Dig­i­tal

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

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