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

I doubt I need to list for you the many titles of the 18th cen­tu­ry Ger­man savant and poly­math Johann Wolf­gang von Goethe, but allow me to add one or two that were new to me, at least: col­or the­o­rist (or phe­nom­e­nol­o­gist of col­or) and prog­en­i­tor of abstract expres­sion­ism. As a fas­ci­nat­ing Book­tryst post informs us, Goethe’s book on col­or, Zur Far­ben­lehre (The­o­ry of Col­ors), writ­ten in 1810, dis­put­ed the New­ton­ian view of the sub­ject and for­mu­lat­ed a psy­cho­log­i­cal and philo­soph­i­cal account of the way we actu­al­ly expe­ri­ence col­or as a phe­nom­e­non. In his account, Goethe describes how he came by his views:

Along with the rest of the world, I was con­vinced that all the col­ors are con­tained in the light; no one had ever told me any­thing dif­fer­ent, and I had nev­er found the least cause to doubt it, because I had no fur­ther inter­est in the sub­ject.

But how I was aston­ished, as I looked at a white wall through the prism, that it stayed white! That only where it came upon some dark­ened area, it showed some col­or, then at last, around the win­dow sill all the col­ors shone… It did­n’t take long before I knew here was some­thing sig­nif­i­cant about col­or to be brought forth, and I spoke as through an instinct out loud, that the New­ton­ian teach­ings were false.

Schopen­hauer would lat­er write that “[Goethe] deliv­ered in full mea­sure what was promised by the title of his excel­lent work: data toward a the­o­ry of colour. They are impor­tant, com­plete, and sig­nif­i­cant data, rich mate­r­i­al for a future the­o­ry of colour.” It was a the­o­ry, Schopen­hauer admits, that does not “[fur­nish] us with a real expla­na­tion of the essen­tial nature of colour, but real­ly pos­tu­lates it as a phe­nom­e­non, and mere­ly tells us how it orig­i­nates, not what it is.”

Anoth­er lat­er philo­soph­i­cal inter­preter of Goethe, Lud­wig Wittgen­stein—a thinker great­ly inter­est­ed in visu­al perception—also saw Goethe’s work as oper­at­ing very dif­fer­ent­ly than New­ton’s optics—not as a sci­en­tif­ic the­o­ry but rather as an intu­itive schema. Wittgen­stein remarked that Goethe’s work “is real­ly not a the­o­ry at all. Noth­ing can be pre­dict­ed by means of it. It is, rather, a vague schemat­ic out­line, of the sort we find in [William] James’s psy­chol­o­gy. There is no exper­i­men­tum cru­cis for Goethe’s the­o­ry of colour.”

Yet a third lat­er Ger­man genius, Wern­er Heisen­berg, com­ment­ed on the influ­ence of Zur Far­ben­lehre, writ­ing that “Goethe’s colour the­o­ry has in many ways borne fruit in art, phys­i­ol­o­gy and aes­thet­ics. But vic­to­ry, and hence influ­ence on the research of the fol­low­ing cen­tu­ry, has been New­ton’s.”


I’m not fit to eval­u­ate the rel­a­tive mer­its of Goethe’s the­o­ry, or lack there­of, ver­sus New­ton’s rig­or­ous work on optics. Whole books have been writ­ten on the sub­ject. But what­ev­er his inten­tions, Goethe’s work has been well-received as a psy­cho­log­i­cal­ly accu­rate account that has also, through his text and many illus­tra­tions you see here, had sig­nif­i­cant influ­ence on twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry painters also great­ly con­cerned with the psy­chol­o­gy of col­or, most notably Wass­i­ly Kandin­sky, who pro­duced his own “schemat­ic out­line” of the psy­cho­log­i­cal effects of col­or titled Con­cern­ing the Spir­i­tu­al in Art, a clas­sic of mod­ernist aes­thet­ic the­o­ry. As is usu­al­ly the case with Goethe, the influ­ence of this sin­gle work is wider and deep­er than he prob­a­bly ever fore­saw.

You can find an afford­able ver­sion of Goethe’s The­o­ry of Col­ors on Ama­zon. Or find scans of the book at Archive.org.

Note: This post orig­i­nal­ly appeared on our site in 2013. We have updat­ed the post with new images and links.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The Book of Colour Con­cepts: A New 800-Page Cel­e­bra­tion of Col­or The­o­ry, Includ­ing Works by New­ton, Goethe, and Hilma af Klint

A 900-Page Pre-Pan­tone Guide to Col­or from 1692: A Com­plete Dig­i­tal Scan

An Ani­mat­ed Intro­duc­tion to Goethe, Germany’s “Renais­sance Man”

Har­ry Clarke’s 1926 Illus­tra­tions of Goethe’s Faust: Art That Inspired the Psy­che­del­ic 60s

Watch Goethe’s Haunt­ing Poem, “Der Erlkönig,” Pre­sent­ed in an Art­ful Sand Ani­ma­tion

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

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