Science and Art were not always great friends
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.
By Danielle Kalamaras
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.
Read more about Goethe’s theory on OpenCulture.com
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