Linda M. Shires, “Color Theory—Charles Lock Eastlake’s 1840 Translation of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Zur Farbenlehre (Theory of Colours)”


The nineteenth century witnessed major developments in color theory, pigment manufacturing, and painting techniques. In 1840, Charles Lock Eastlake—painter, art scholar, and collector—translated Goethe’s 1810 Zur Farbenlehre or Theory of Colours as a handbook and a history, with his own erudite notes, to aid British painters. The volume aimed to offer nineteenth-century artists a deeper education in color than Royal Academy training, which still emphasized imitation of old masters with instruction in composition and line. Eastlake also aimed to restore Goethe’s Aristotelian emphasis on the eye’s perception of color. A focus of debate among scientists and artists, the anti-Newtonian Theory of Colours seriously engaged painters as different in style as J. M. W. Turner and Holman Hunt, both of whom were fascinated by color and nature as seen by the eye. Moreover, Eastlake’s learned notes remained unrivaled for their detailed knowledge of Aristotelian natural science and optics, early technical treatises on painting, and specific Renaissance paintings. Charles Lock Eastlake, a growing authority in the art world of London, went on to be knighted (1850), elected President of the Royal Academy (1850), and appointed the first Director of the National Gallery of Art (1855).

During the first half of the nineteenth century, debates about color enlivened disciplines as varied as physical science, physiology, psychology, linguistics, ancient history, chromatics, art history, sculpture, painting and drawing, pigment manufacturing, and architecture. One could choose a variety of dates registering key arguments and discoveries about color, which seem only to have increased throughout the century. However, the decade of 1830-1840 proved especially important, partly for reasons I have suggested in another BRANCH essay: “Color Theory—1835.” These include industrialization, the manufacturing of new pigments, discoveries in science leading to revised theories of color, and important European treatises on color. Although professors of the map iconRoyal Academy still instructed students in imitation, composition, and linear design rather than color, many practicing artists such as Constable and Turner experimented extensively with color (Bruneau 16). They exploited different optical effects of old and new pigments with different media and mixed color combinations with varying binders. At the end of this decade, Sir Charles Lock Eastlake translated Goethe’s Zur Farbenlehre. Contentious responses to Goethe’s 1810 original and to Eastlake’s 1840 translation register a complicated relationship between two kinds of evidence—scientific optics and human perception. Whereas Sir Isaac Newton had relied on scientific proofs, Goethe, overtly challenging Newton, conducted experiments on the perceptual effects of color under varying conditions.

Eastlake’s 1840 translation into English of Goethe’s Zur Farbenlehre, and his own addition of extensive supplementary notes, reactivated intense debates between scientists and practicing artists thirty years after the original publication. Yet the volume should be judged a major event in Victorian cultural history for many additional reasons. It appeared at a time when the English manufacture of pigments had vastly improved. While nobody would claim that the book revolutionized artistic practice, it clearly reinforced notions about perception and color that artists had been exploring on their own. Eastlake’s notes offered a trustworthy foundation for their experiments. J. M. W. Turner and Holman Hunt, for instance, both known as magnificent colorists, directly engaged with the book, albeit differently. Although, at first, some scientists wrote vitriolic responses in major journals, the volume solidified Eastlake’s increasing authority in the London art world and succeeded in validating his ultimate aim—the positioning of art at the very center of national consciousness.

New Pigments, New Combinations – 1800-1840

In the early years of the nineteenth century, a revolution in attitudes towards color had begun among individual English and French landscape painters, coinciding with the manufacture of new pigments. For example, John Constable depicted meadows with emerald green, which was first manufactured in 1814 (Harley 84). He innovatively mixed chrome yellow and Prussian blue; at the same time, he relied on muddier greens, as when he blended Prussian blue and yellow ochre. He studied rainbow effects and experimented in new ways with wavering light and lead white. J. M. W. Turner drew on almost all the new pigments first produced commercially in his lifetime (Townsend, “The Materials of J. M. W. Turner: Pigments” 250).

As distinctions were drawn between color as pigment and color as light, both the quality of pigments and artists’ handling of paint underwent significant changes. As early as 1818, J. M. W. Turner, in his lectures to students of the Royal Academy, had distinguished between aerial colors and material colors; “White in the prismatic order, in the rainbow is the union or compound of light, as is daylight” while “the commixture of our material colours becomes the opposite, darkness” (Turner as quoted in Glanville 30). By 1830, J. F. L. Mérimée’s De la Peinture à l’Huile (translated as The Art of Painting in Oil in 1839) made the same argument. Yet pigments available for representation of nature often were not chemically stable or long-lasting. The chemist and colorman George Field began manufacturing pigments in England that were superior in quality to all others available to artists (see Shires, BRANCH). He consulted with artists, tested pigments for them, and sold his products to painters, including Turner, Hunt, and Millais. Painters read color theory, such as George Field’s Chromatics (1817), Aesthetics (1820), and Chromatography or, a Treatise on Colours and Pigments, and of their Powers in Painting (1835), and other contemporary writings on optics and on color, some of which were founded on Newton’s prismatics in Opticks and some of which, like Field’s, were founded on associations of color with a tonal scale and symbolic meanings for color. Artists sought new uses for color, exploiting visual techniques.  They purposefully linked color with emotion and with what they saw as the truth of nature.

Turner’s famous yellows offer a fascinating index to the speed with which colors were changing in the early to mid-nineteenth century. When Turner began painting in watercolor, most of the yellows available to him were golden opaque colors. For instance, Indian yellow, first produced in map iconIndia in the fifteenth century, was available to English artists in the eighteenth century and after. The way to make a pellucid yellow, though, was to use a thin wash of gamboge (a deep saffron). But from 1814-1815 Turner had access to a range of new, mid-tone chrome yellow pigments. Further shades of chrome yellow and orange were available over the following years, and by the mid-1820s Turner was using both a paler and a deeper yellow, as well as a bright orange (Moorby and Townsend 28; Townsend Turner’s Painting Techniques 41). As Martin Kemp notes, citing Norham Castle as an example, Turner’s “paintings from the 1820s on bear witness to his attempts to make his ‘dense material’ assume the guise of ‘aerial’ prismatics” (302). In 1809, George Field sold lemon yellow (the “only chromate which possesses durability” [Field 101]), and he included a sample in his 1835 Chromatography (Harley 103). These new colors allowed Turner to rely less on traditional pigments, such as orpiment, a rich canary yellow. Throughout his life, he followed color development and pigment availability so closely, in fact, that art historians and conservationists have revised their views on when pigments were available in England based on close analysis of his canvases.

Chrome YellowChrome yellow

Indian YellowIndian yellow

Lemon YellowLemon yellow



Figure 1: This image, edited and augmented by Shires, is courtesy of Web Exhibits. Copyright (c) 2001 Web Exhibits, except portions licensed from other parties. All portions of this site may be printed or otherwise reproduced for educational, personal, and nonprofit uses.

Such developments gain significance when one remembers that for many early Victorians, bright intense colors indicated a subversion of classicism, a revolt against tradition, and a threat to the Royal Academy and all it represented. The sublime power of painting, critics believed, lay in somber tones and hues; form was elevated in importance over color.

In 1840, Charles Lock Eastlake translated Goethe’s 1810 Zur Farbenlehre as Theory of Colours to aid British painters in color techniques. It was a book which had already incited argument abroad, because Goethe had tried to disprove Sir Isaac Newton’s scientifically based theories about light and color. Eastlake, however, considering Goethe to be in a long line of color theorists from Aristotle to Leonardo da Vinci, did not translate most sections of the book challenging Sir Isaac Newton. Nor did he care about a scientific estimation of the quality of Goethe’s color theory. He saw Goethe’s experiments and resulting commentary on color as relevant to artists precisely because of the book’s sharp focus on the way the eye and brain perceive and interpret color. Goethe’s Zur Farbenlehre is therefore directed to artistic practice.

Goethe’s high reputation in England and Eastlake’s growing reputation in the London art world might have been reason enough to undertake the translation (see Robertson). Yet there were other stimuli. Eastlake greatly admired Renaissance coloring (championed by Goethe), which he witnessed first-hand and repeatedly during his fourteen-year stay in map iconRome from age twenty-seven to forty-one. A talented painter as well as a scholar of art, Eastlake developed a friendship with Turner and shared a studio with him in Rome for several months (see Gage, “Turner’s Academic Friendships”). During his sojourn years in map iconItaly, the multi-lingual Eastlake greatly benefited from his interactions with Continental scholars and artists. His years in Rome proved to be a life experience “unrivalled amongst English artists and critics” (Vaughan 85, fn 38). Eastlake’s fascination with European art and science, coupled with his strong desire to promote art in Britain, makes it seem natural that he would translate the book Goethe came to consider his masterpiece.

Even a superficial look at Eastlake’s preface, selection, and notes confirms his intimate knowledge of painterly uses of Renaissance coloring, his Romantic ideals, and his awareness of key Victorian scientific discoveries. Yet a closer examination reveals the text’s unparalleled usefulness to Victorian painters. For Eastlake’s edition expands Goethe’s ideas by complementing his own knowledge of Aristotelian natural science and optics with a thorough understanding of technical treatises and the Renaissance paintings on which they were based.

Eastlake would build on his notes to Theory of Colours by proceeding to write his magisterial Materials for a History of Oil Painting (1847) and Contributions to the Literature of the Fine Arts (1848). These works helped him gain a series of key leadership positions in the art world: second president of the Birmingham Society of Artists in 1850, President of the Royal Academy in 1850; first President of the map iconPhotographic Society in 1853, and first Director of the map iconNational Gallery of London in 1855.

Newton and Goethe

Sir Isaac Newton, Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at map icon Cambridge, lectured on optics from 1670-72. Although the lectures were sparsely attended, a summary was presented to the map iconRoyal Society in 1672, the year of Newton’s election. In his later Opticks (1704), based on these lectures and subsequent experiments, Newton studied the refraction of light. Proving that a prism separated white light into a spectrum of colors from red through orange and yellow, to green, blue, and purple, Newton rejected Aristotle’s theory that color came from objects themselves. Although the refracted rays were not themselves colored, they produced a sensation of color to the human eye: “They have there no appropriate colour, but ever appear of the colour of the light cast upon them, but yet with this difference, that they are most brisk and vivid in the light of their own daylight colour” (Newton 78). Newton also demonstrated that, by using a lens and prism, colors could be recombined into white light. He thus proved that color results from the interaction of light with objects. Newton also offered a circular arrangement of colors and stressed complementarity.

Opposed to Sir Isaac Newton’s scientific assertions about light and color, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe published Zur Farbenlehre in 1810. Goethe devoted part of his book to critiquing Newton’s Opticks. Conducting his own different experiments with prisms, Goethe observed that when a white wall is viewed through a prism, it will still remain white. He noted that colors appeared only when contrasts of light and dark occurred. Thus, he concluded that Newton’s theory of white light’s being separated into colors and recombining to white must be wrong; Newton had not, he believed, provided a solid foundation for any theory of color. While Goethe knew that a prism creates colors, he did not agree they were the product of white light. White light, he maintained, was not heterogeneous, but homogeneous—an aspect of the unity he saw in the universe. Even though he did not fully understand the scientific aspects of Newton’s theory, Goethe felt that his understanding of color was superior to Newton’s. Only late in life did Goethe agree to remove his polemic from future editions (Gage Color and Culture 202).

Although Goethe critiqued Newton for giving the psychophysics of color a purely physical and mathematical basis, he failed to provide an alternative, since, as Dennis Sepper argues, Goethe was unable to “resolve the question of how mathematical conception and calculation are to be reconciled with seeing and experiencing the appearances” of color (x). Presenting the effects of color on the eye, Goethe calls Zur Farbenlehre a “book which treats of the appearances of nature” (Sepper xxviii). If we attend to the phenomena of “nature herself” (xxix), he advises, we will feel awe at the laws of physics or mathematics, without having to resort to scientific explanations or formulae. For Goethe, much, therefore, depends upon the observer’s receptivity of Nature—either in reality or through an active imagination.

Goethe’s Colors

Goethe entrusts his analysis to the sensory experience of colors, especially that of the perceptive eye, rather than to scientific law or rules, because he believes sense data should be the basis of human inquiry into the world. The first parts of his book concern his experiments with and conclusions about after-images, contrasting colors, colored shadows, and other color phenomena. Following these, he examines and discards Newtonian optics. Later sections of Zur Farbenlehre treat chemical colors and effects, general characteristics of color, color’s relationship to other pursuits (such as philosophy), the moral or emotional effects of particular colors, and the allegorical, symbolic, and mystical application of colors.

Significantly, Goethe differentiates three kinds of color: physiological color belonging to the eye, physical or aerial color brought into visibility in a colorless medium such as air, and chemical color belonging to the object. Goethe’s ideas about color are premised on the polarity of light and dark, whether in nature, in prismatic colors, or in subjective color mixes and contrasts produced by the eye. Color is itself a “degree of darkness,” he writes (Goethe 31, 61, 99n), since all colors are lighter than black and darker than white; thus, color is produced by the raying of one pole through the other, as when light pierces the darkness at sunrise, producing colors such as pink, or when darkness through light produces the colors of blue or purple at evening. This emphasis on polarities had also been embraced by predecessors such as Roger Bacon and Leonardo da Vinci, and re-articulated by others in the early nineteenth century, including Turner. Darkness, in other words, is not an absence of light, but an equal and active principle in nature. Goethe contends that

light and darkness … are necessary to the production of colour. Next to the light, colour appears which we call yellow; another next to the darkness, which we name blue. . . but the intensest and purest red. . . is produced when the two extremes of the yellow-red and blue-red are united. . . . But we can also assume an existing red in addition to the definite existing blue and yellow. . . . With these three or six colours, which may be conveniently included in a circle, the elementary doctrine of colours is alone concerned. (xii-xiii)

In support of this idea, Goethe examined subjective color effects, that seem to come from the eye, and objective color effects, such as changes in color due to chemical interactions.

For example, a subjective effect would include afterimages, when a reverse color image of something one has stared at appears as soon as one closes one’s eyes. Since colors can be seen in an afterimage and not just in the act of looking, they can exist simultaneously as a subjective sensation and an objectively defined phenomenon. Because afterimages include black, gray, and white, they seemed to Goethe to refute Newton’s theory of light and color. Eastlake points out that, whereas Newton omitted a full discussion of contrast, Goethe drew attention to contrast as an effect of the eye and brain. For instance, Goethe notes that, if one looks at brightly colored flowers in a garden and immediately thereafter looks at a gravel path, “this will be seen to be studded with spots of the opposite color” (Goethe 24, as quoted in Glanville 32). Goethe also perceived that shadows were colored, and this too seemed to conflict with Newton’s idea that all colors were contained in white light.

Goethe's color wheel

Figure 2: Goethe’s color wheel from his 1810 _Zur Farbenlehre_

Goethe used a chromatic circle (Fig. 2) to show that colors diametrically opposed can evoke each other in the eye. Moreover, he importantly noted that opposing colors occur in nature, not only one after the other, but at the same time: “If a coloured object impinges on one part of the retina, the remaining portion at the same moment has a tendency to produce the compensatory color” (Goethe 28, as quoted by Glanville 33). Since he believed color results from the blending of boundaries between dark and light, he identified the causes of color in terms of the destruction of edges between light and dark and its effect on objects: either as the clouding up of white light by a semi-transparent pool or air, as diffraction (light’s bending around an object, as through a prism, and altering the image), or as a doubling created by shadows created by the sun, colored glass, mirrors, or bubbles.

Finally, Goethe keenly addressed how color engages not only our eyes, but also our emotions, especially so if we are in a room in which one color predominates or if we look through a colored glass (306): “People experience a great delight in colour, generally. The eye requires it as much as it requires light. . . . [P]articular colours excite particular states of feeling” (304-5). Goethe discusses, for example, “plus” colors, such as yellow, red-yellow (orange), and yellow-red (minium, cinnabar) as stimulating quick, lively, or aspiring feelings. Yellow, the closest to light, he opines, has “a serene, gay, softly exciting character” and conveys a “warm and agreeable impression” (306), even a “noble” character (308). Yet the color is also easily polluted, he remarks, and can be used to stigmatize the Other. For when it dyes common cloth, the effect is a sense of foulness and an effect that is “disagreeable” (308). The yellow “hats of bankrupts and the yellow circles on the mantles of Jews” may have derived, he suggests, from a connotation of dishonor connected to a “foul” dulling of yellow (308). Colors on the “minus” side (blue, red-blue, and blue-red), produce, he suggests, “a restless, susceptible, anxious impression” (301). Moreover, he notes that blue “brings a principle of darkness with it” and that it is a retreating color, yet one that usually “draws us after it” (311), despite its evoking cold, emptiness, and melancholy. Goethe’s examples are extensive and offer a fascinating resource for painters.

The Reception of Goethe’s Zur Farbenlehre (1810) and of Eastlake’s translation Theory of Colors (1840) in Science and in Art

There is no doubt that the initial popularity of Goethe’s work in 1810 was due in part to his reputation as a genius and in part to his Romantic notion of interpreting the universe through a theory of polarities and unity. But Zur Farbenlehre also drew readers for its controversial disparagement of Newton’s monumental Opticks of 1704 (see Helmholtz, Jablonski, Burwick, Sepper). Physicists in 1810 took little serious notice of Goethe’s ideas about color. Yet, the book did have an impact on future scientists of perception, for Goethe’s emphasis on polarities and color reception affected the developing sciences of the physiology of the eye and of the brain. The book influenced Jan Purkinje (who was befriended by Goethe and who had read his work) and Herbert von Helmholtz’s teacher Johannes Müller in the 1820s. Eventually, in the 1870s, physiologist Ewald Hering built on Goethe’s insights about opposite colors that reciprocally evoke each other in the eye. Hering developed his own theory of color vision which differed from the Young-Helmholtz theory (see Heisenberg, Seamon, Zajonc) and which helped form the basis of our understanding of color vision today. In addition, the book held a lasting fascination for philosophers such as Arthur Schopenhauer and Ludwig Wittgenstein, who wrote his own reactions to Goethe in Remarks on Color during the last eighteen months of his life (1950-51; published 1977).

Although Eastlake’s 1840 English edition was received with highly mixed reviews from scientists, many of whom themselves had either rejected Newton’s theory or reaffirmed it, John Gage believes Theory of Colors valuably directed “the attention of scientists as well as the wider public to a range of physical and psychological colour-phenomena” that people could test for themselves (Gage, Color and Culture 201). Indeed, one can easily reproduce many of Goethe’s experiments and compare one’s own responses. Goethe’s book—whether speaking of shadows around a woman Goethe had seen or of a range of colors in chocolate froth—proved wonderfully rich for general readers and for artists. Kemp notes that artists were especially “attracted by the beguiling brilliance of his observations, such his entrancing account of the mobile rainbows of kaleidoscopic colour in bubbles” (298). The impact of Eastlake’s 1840 translation on British painters was far greater than that of Goethe’s 1810 text on German artists. In addition, Goethe’s traditionalism and fame made his ideas acceptable to British painters who had encountered them in other forms and palatable to academies of art. Even more to the point, Eastlake’s edition, with notes, critiqued and helpfully modified Goethe’s important “central principles” relating to color harmony, contrast, opposition, and gradation (Finley 531).

Charles Lock Eastlake (1793-1865) was superbly well-positioned to translate and edit Goethe’s book. In the years leading up to his translation, he had received traditional training in art, exhibited his own paintings at Royal Academy exhibitions, fostered connections to key artists of his day, strengthened his knowledge of Renaissance art with a long residency in Rome, and conversed with many continental scholars and artists. His own first art lessons had been under Samuel Prout (1783-1852), the watercolor architectural painter, and Benjamin Robert Haydon (1786-1846), the historical painter and writer. In 1809, Eastlake continued lessons at the Royal Academy, where student peers included David Wilkie, William Mulready, and William Etty. At this time, he received a thorough grounding in Sir Joshua Reynolds’ Discourses on Art (1769), a book which conveyed “expectations of an improvement in national artistic production to match national achievement in other spheres” (Bruneau 26). He studied under such notables as the Professors of Painting Henry Fuseli and of Perspective J. M. W. Turner.

As Eastlake hoped, practicing artists engaged directly with the volume. Lady Eastlake, the art historian and critic, clarifies her husband’s intentions for his edition of Goethe in her memoir of his life by quoting from a letter to his brother dated 27 May 1840. He aimed “to make a selection of such of the experiments as seemed more directly applicable to the theory and practice of Painting.” Eastlake continued: “the theory, right or wrong, was the theory of the Italians at the revival of letters, and is closely connected with the practice of the Italian painters. This is what I have endeavored to show in my notes” (Eastlake 162; see Goethe, “Preface” vii-viii and xiii). Sure enough, Turner and the Pre-Raphaelites grappled with Goethe’s ideas seriously, via Eastlake’s edition, and others, like colorman George Field, reinforced their interest in them.

As an artist himself, Eastlake extended Goethe’s observations on the perception of colored objects and on how contrast brings out the intensity and hue of a color. For instance, a pink shadow around a green blade of grass intensifies the green. A blue shadow around a red scarf intensifies the red. Such techniques were important to painters devoted to a faithful reproduction of colors in natural light. Eastlake had benefited from the advice of Turner and Sir Thomas Lawrence to brighten his own palette. Indeed, Eastlake’s annotations are so useful in the areas of contrast and gradation it has been speculated that, given his fluency in French, as well as German and Italian, he may have known of the 1828 lectures of chemist Michel Chevreul, which were adapted for his influential 1839 De la loi du contraste simultané des couleurs et de l’assortiment des objets colorés (translated by Charles Martel as The Principles of Harmony and Contrast of Colours in 1854).

Making the case for vibrant color as central to painting, Eastlake’s notes on Goethe stressed the importance of hues, layerings, and the use of space. He noted that glazes can both enrich and alter hues and insisted on the the minute, as well as the large, masses of color in a painting (359-60). Eastlake corrected Goethe for attributing color contrasts too exclusively to the eye, rather than to the color of lights. Yet he also confirmed some of Goethe’s observations with more recent scientific proofs, for instance by citing Sir John Herschel’s experiments on light and perception (373). Most helpfully, Eastlake offered painters a thorough history of the thinking and practices of Renaissance artists (Leonardo, the Venetians) on issues such as the need for different degrees of light to obtain the best display of different colors (354). The book’s reception by contemporary artists was immediately palpable, though it ranged from direct engagement by Turner to a more indirect awareness in the case of the Pre-Raphaelites, especially Holman Hunt.

Turner and Goethe—The Force of Nature

J. M. W. Turner is the sole British artist known to have engaged deeply with Eastlake’s edition by annotating his copy extensively and producing a pair of paintings referring to it: Light and Colour (Goethe’s Theory) – The Morning after the Deluge – Moses Writing the Book of Genesis and Shade and Darkness – The Evening of the Deluge. It seems clear that Turner and Eastlake shared many ideas about light and color. But it would be grossly misleading to describe Turner’s engagement as wholehearted approval of Goethe’s ideas. Almost seventy years old when he read Goethe’s book, Turner made brief marginal jottings of agreement, but also of disdain, disapproval, and suspicious caution.

The master colorist’s comments on Theory of Colours, reproduced by Gage (see “Turner’s Annotated Books”), are often terse or amusing. Goethe writes: “If the person walking raises and spreads his hand, he distinctly sees in the shadow of each finger the diverging separation of the two half-shadows outwards, and the diminution of the principal shadow inwards, both being effects of the cross action of the light” (para 395). Turner responds: “if this is fact there would appear two men out of one.” Goethe asks for three primary colors. Turner, who is thinking in terms of darkness and light, writes in response to para 705:  “what!! Blue and Yellow” (Gage, “Turner’s Annotated Books” 45). In para 725, Goethe writes: “The theory of colours, in particular has suffered much, and its progress has been incalculably retarded by having been mixed up with optics generally, a science which cannot dispense with mathematics; whereas the theory of colours, in strictness, may be investigated quite independently of optics.” Turner sums up: “there lies the question” (46). Turner finds Goethe to be wrong about sculpture and his connections between painting and music “too general to make much of” (50).

John Gage has helpfully documented exactly what Turner would have known as he digested Goethe. Many of Goethe’s assumptions, for instance the tonal extremes of blue and yellow or white light as homogeneous, were familiar to Turner from his reading of color theorists such as George Field in the 1830s, whose own views were compatible with Goethe’s, though he had not read Zur Farbenlehre; Turner subscribed to Field’s Chromatography (1835). Turner also knew Goethe’s ideas from his long friendship with Eastlake, and he had also met with Sir David Brewster in map iconEdinburgh in 1834 and had very likely read the scientist’s 1840 attack on Goethe in the Edinburgh Review (Gage, “Turner’s Annotated Books” 34). Other anti-Newtonian publications by Thomas Young, James Sowerby, Edward Bancroft, and Joseph Reade circulated among painters (34). On the other hand, some painters whom Turner knew, such as Thomas Phillips, R. A., also opposed Goethe’s writings. Since Turner is known for his independent mind, we should not be at all surprised if Turner shared some ideas with Goethe, but rejected others.

Turner had always been concerned with the relationship of light to color and to perception. His map iconLouvre sketchbook notes of 1802 suggest that he was analyzing works of the old masters in terms adjacent to color effects (Townsend, Turner’s Painting Techniques 35). In 1818, Turner lectured on a three-color theory, and around 1820 he had been trying to connect three primary colors—red, yellow, and blue—with the times of day, whereby warm colors of yellow and red invade gray-blue dawn and shades of darkness encroach on red and yellow at evening. Although there is no clear evidence that Turner knew of Goethe’s work during his lecturing years, he too emphasized polarities of light and dark and arranged colors in a tonal order (Gage, Colour and Culture 203). Claiming a difference between aerial and material colors, as noted earlier, Turner rotated his color wheel to feature yellow at the top. He drew color triangles where the lightest yellows rose to the top and the darkest purples sank to the bottom. He also favored aerial (yellow) prismatics above all others as being closest to light, regarded red as substantial material color, and saw blue as indicative of distance (206). While a number of writers discussed complementary colors and simultaneous contrast in the 1820s, it would seem that Turner’s reading and practice took him in the same direction independently. It appears that “his increasing use of contrast between the complementary colors red and green from about 1830 onwards” developed from his own ideas about color rather than from the application of theories he had read (Townsend, Turner’s Painting Techniques 35-36; on Turner’s practices see also Townsend, “Painting Techniques and Materials” and “Materials”). Turner keenly sensed the emotional force of colors, and of color contrast, but, as we might expect, he remained skeptical of any uniform attempts to link specific colors to particular emotional or symbolic meanings (Kemp 302; Moorby and Turner 17).

Although one example—The Burning of the Houses of Lords and Commons, October 16, 1834—from his arresting series on the Burning of the map iconHouses of Parliament must suffice (Fig. 3), this 1835 painting captures Turner’s fully-developed color sense in rendering the power and mystery of natural forces such as fire and wind, and the reflection of fire on water. At the same time, it illustrates Turner’s interest in conflict and the symbolic meanings of fundamental light/dark oppositions. On the night of the greatest conflagration in London since 1666, Turner, with tens of thousands of others, witnessed hours of destruction as St. Stephen’s Chapel, the map iconLords’ Chamber, the map iconPainted Chamber, and map iconresidences of the Speaker and Clerk of the House of Commons burned down. Viewing the fire from both land and rented boat, he made a number of sketches in pencil and watercolor. In this painting, one of two oils, he distorts perspective as map iconWestminster Bridge rises massively on the right and seems to dissolve as it reaches the far shore. Turner’s canvas literally sucks in the viewer dramatically to a blue abyss and yellow conflagration.

Turner's Burning of the Houses of Lords and Commons

Figure 3: The Burning of the Houses of Lords and Commons, 16 October 1834 (1834-35)

Turner refuses to subordinate color to form—he erases forms via color (Holmes 412), even as he subordinates materiality (the man-made bridge and observers in the foreground) to the elements of fire, air, and water. Swirling yellow devours the buildings. The blue sky is static in comparison to fire, a counterweight to the flames in the top left quarter of the image, whereas the water of the map iconThames, suggesting a whirlpool, appears as a mix of blue and yellow in a reflection of sky and fire. Illustrating a kinship with Goethe, Turner exploits the dynamism of light and shadow. Notably, however, the shadows—in the foreground, center, and in the blue sky—are not all black. Rather, Turner complicates simple polarities; shadows vary in hue. Some are pale, some blue, some reddish brown, and some are reddish-black or grey.

Whereas this painting illustrates an overlap in Turner’s practice with Goethe’s theory, Theory of Colors is directly cited in his paired oil paintings of 1843. Illustrating episodes from Genesis, the pair may be taken, however, as a statement of Turner’s own color theory. Shade and Darkness: The Evening of the Deluge (Fig. 4) shows the last families and animals dying in a mass of dark blues, greens and blacks in the Noahitic flood. White light in the upper middle of the painting looks as if it is being squeezed out of existence by darkness, as its rays illuminate writhing death and destruction.

Turner's Shade and Darkness

Figure 4: Shade and Darkness – The Evening of the Deluge (1843)

Art historians, such as Jonathan Crary, have argued that “the fusion of the eye of the viewer with the moon and sun in these paintings marks a shift in conceptions about reality”—from something passively received to something actively created by the viewer (Shires 22). Viewing the animal forms represented in Shade and Darkness illustrates such active creation. These forms are far more abstract than in an earlier painting of Turner’s on the deluge; “From one angle, animal heads appear like alligators, from another angle like horses” (Shires 22). Depending on one’s position in front of the actual painting, the viewer half-creates the images. They slide into each other as one moves back and forth or looks at the painting from different points of view.

Turner's Light and Colour

Figure 5: Light and Colour (Goethe’s Theory) – the Morning after the Deluge – Moses Writing the Book of Genesis (1843)

Turner cites Goethe in the title of the more complicated of these paired paintings. Light and Colour (Goethe’s Theory) offers a circle of white and yellow light in a bubble, with colors encroached upon by mysterious, dark shadows in the bottom left quadrant (on aerial and material colors here, see Miller 136). The dot in the center of the circle is Moses. Below him is his staff, with a serpent on the top. The yellows in the painting surely refer to Goethe’s idea of yellow as being the first color transmitted from light. We recall Turner’s own primacy of place in his triangles and color circles for yellow—the brightest color closest to white light. It seems here to be an optimistic color conveying a sense of nobility.

Yet Turner’s mixtures of yellow and browns and reds against and within a fragile bubble do not convey either stability or a pure optimism. Rather, as in the painting of the fire consuming Parliament, colors swirl and change. Moreover, Goethe’s ideas about iridescence appear here in the bubble surface that appears to shift or mix hues, depending on the angle from which a viewer looks at it (even as dark colored forms seemed to shift identity via color mixings in the first painting). As in the first paired painting of the deluge, here Turner tries to substitute an optical effect for the light and colors of nature.

The bubble is also in the shape of the human eye, stressing the link of color and perception, of which iridescence is but one example. Turner invites the viewer’s eye not only to behold, but to create color and imitate light. Jonathan Crary suggests that the yellow circle here, the sun, resembles a Goethean afterimage. Turner pictures “the pupil of the eye and the retinal field” on which “the temporal experience of an afterimage unfolds” (139, 141; see Miller on Turner’s suns 111-151). Believing that all colors come from light, Turner paints his colors so as to produce optical fusions which create new colors and afterimages.

A caption from Turner’s poems “Fallacies of Hope,” appended to the painting when exhibited, adds significant dimensions of meaning:

The ark stood firm on Ararat; th’ returning sun
Exhaled earth’s humid bubbles, and emulous of light,
Reflected her lost forms, each in prismatic guise
Hope’s harbinger, ephemeral as the summer fly
Which rises, flits, expands, and dies. (Turner qtd. in Gage, Colour and Culture 201)

Whereas Gage has interpreted both paintings as concerning pessimism, given the ephemerality of “hope’s harbinger” in the attached verse, I am more inclined to see the painting pair as concerning the creation of light and color, via both Divine and secular creative acts. When Turner was asked by Ruskin what “Light and Colour” meant, he replied “Red, blue, and yellow” (Gage Color in Turner 125; 254 fn 249). Referring to the three primary colors he believed to be the active constituents of white light, Turner indicates that the painting is about the nature of light and the creation of color. Supporting Goethe’s account of the genesis of colors from light and darkness, each painting concerns the separation of darkness from light, the action of the first day of creation in Genesis 1:3 (“And God said, Let there be light: and there was light”), and the return of darkness with the extinguishing of light. At the same time, though one painting features destruction by water and one creation by an act of light, each invokes the other as night invokes day. In each, Turner cites the fragility as well as the strength of light. Thus, he restores an emphasis on darkness as a value in art and in nature, which he felt Goethe had neglected.

What distinguishes Turner’s “Morning After” painting from others on similar themes in Medieval- or Renaissance-era illuminated manuscripts is exactly the fragility indicated by the dark encroaching colors and the centrality of the figure of Moses. Although critics discuss the pair of paintings as both about the Noahitic flood—with some critics employing Biblical verses and midrash to connect Noah to Moses—Turner may be layering several narratives. Sacred time is not literal or linear in the Five Books of Moses, especially in Genesis and Exodus. Turner can easily be painting several Biblical narratives at once, referring viewers backward to the Genesis moment when light is created from the void and forward to the Christian resurrection (that which, for most Victorian Christians would redeem man from darkness, sin, and destruction).

For instance, we know that Noah’s ark, which survives the deluge, lands on the mountains of Ararat. Yet there is no arc rainbow in Turner’s painting. On the other hand, the emergence of Ararat to light returns us to Genesis and the first creation and it prefigures map iconMt. Sinai; the rainbow, which seems to be dispersed in the skin of the bubble, pre-figures Moses’s writing down the Ten Commandments, which, in turn, prefigures Christ giving the Sermon on the Mount. Similarly, we know that the serpent staff refers to at least four Biblical moments: the garden of Eden and the fall, the parting of the red Sea by Moses’ magical staff, Moses’ hitting the rock with the staff to get water (for which God refuses Moses entrance to the promised land), and the serpent as a symbol of a crucified and transcendent Christ. That which is a salvation (the ark on Ararat) leads to a responsibility and new contract (Moses on Sinai). The fact that the staff could also be a pen and a paintbrush indicates the simultaneity of sacred time as written in the Bible and as experienced in humanity’s awe at the universe, a fact that must be recorded by the artist. Hanging the paintings as a pair, Turner also collapses time and space in his evocations of an ending and multiple beginnings—he refashions optical truths, creation, and narrative by enabling the viewer to look at Moses in dazzling brightness with the stylus that will/did/does inaugurate a new order, as Moses, Turner, and the viewer become co-writers/-seers/-creators (Shires 23).

Yet what does the handling of time have to do with color? Turner acknowledges Goethe’s polarities and rainbow colours visible on the surface of bubbles (Eastlake 193), but insists that color is not just composed by an opposition of light and dark. Just as sacred time is all time, the world of light, separated from darkness by God in Genesis, is a bright bubble holding all colors, as Sir Isaac Newton might agree. While Turner’s painting pair may never be fully understood or interpreted, given their many complexities in form, color and meaning, I tend to agree with Martin Kemp who suggests that the painting is a “hymn to the visual and emotional potency of the reflected and refracted prismatics” (303), and to their perceptual effects on mankind. The second painting acknowledges not just change, transience, and death, but even more: human perception and the co-creativity demanded of a viewer by the painting.

Goethe and Hunt—Optical Truth

Because the Pre-Raphaelites revolutionized the color palette to capture the brilliance of nature in direct sunlight and open air, Eastlake’s translation of Goethe was among those texts “listed approvingly by the Pre-Raphaelites” (Glanville 29). It, along with Newton’s Opticks, earned two stars in the Pre-Raphaelite manifesto of 1848. Although the Pre-Raphaelites varied enormously from one another in the art they created, they imbibed Goethe’s ideas concerning the subjective effects of simultaneous contrast, the colors of light sources, and the color of lit surfaces in sunlight and shadow. Holman Hunt, especially, was extremely interested in color and kept abreast of new pigments and color theories and practices. His keen interest in durable materials and in technique lasted all his life. We know more about Pre-Raphaelite techniques from his writings than we know from any other practitioner (Hackney 80). Although the accuracy of his 1885 book about Pre-Raphaelitism has been questioned, Hunt does mention there that “we often trenched in scientific and historic grounds, for my previous reading and cogitation had led me to love these interests” (Hunt as quoted in Kemp 305). By the 1850s, he could select hues from a great variety of pigments available, fully understanding their advantages and drawbacks. To be sure, the amazing prismatics of Our English Coasts (Strayed Sheep) (1852), praised by John Ruskin, are often cited by today’s art historians and conservationists to illustrate Hunt’s precision with a highly reflective white priming and color effects (Tate 108; Jacobi 123; Glanville 37; Ridge, Townsend, and Hackney 141). Such effects were documented by Goethe’s experiments. Hunt’s use of natural light and color to capture optical truth ranges from light affecting color through the thinnest part of the ears of sheep, to contrasts of blues and yellows in the sea beyond the hills, to multi-colored tones of yellow, blue, and red flecking the white sheep fleeces, to intense, varied shades of green and violet in the grass, to eyes of sheep differing whether they are in light or in shadows, and whether in white or black sheep.

A brief look at another celebrated, complex painting (Fig. 6) shows Hunt’s mastery of some of the effects that Theory of Colours recommends to the eyes and minds of viewers.

Hunt's The Hireling Shepherd

Figure 6: The Hireling Shepherd (1851)

Although one may be distracted by the microscopic detail and large figures so characteristic in Pre-Raphaelite art, the sun and shadows in Hunt’s highly allegorical The Hireling Shepherd take the color of the object they strike. The sheep sometimes look pinkish-yellowish, sometimes darker and occasionally almost blue, even though we know they are white in hue. Similarly, a tall dark tree in front of a field casts a green shadow on grass, though we know the shadow, in reality, is darker. F. G Stephens praises Hunt’s picture, indicating the influence on it of scientific explanations of “sunlight effect”: “He was absolutely the first figure-painter who gave the true colour to sun-shadows, made them partake of the tint of the object on which they were cast, and deepened such shadows to pure blue where he found them to be so, painted trees like trees, and far-off hedgerows standing clearly in pure summer air” (19-20). Hunt himself elaborated upon reflection and color: “We registered prismatic hues because we found that each terrestrial feature mirrored blue sky and the tints of its neighboring creations” (470). In the marshy water at the shepherdesses’ feet, Hunt mixes yellows with greens, whites, and blues as the water that mirrors yellow flowers, and green grass, predominantly reflects the white clouds and blue sky. We might expect such reflections in water, but Hunt also has fields and clothing reflect the blue sky or the shadows created by overhanging trees.

Yet Hunt also exploits contrast. The luminous yellow field of corn into which one sheep has strayed, is especially striking since it sets up an extreme contrast with the dark trunks in front of it and the sunny foliage behind it in the distance. The areas of light and dark, not in balance, document a different use of color than the chiaroscuro balancing of light and shade employed by the predecessors Hunt had rejected (Barringer 63). Instead, Hunt documents everything he sees exactly as natural light hits it.

Some of Hunt’s paintings can be off-putting in that they are so intense in color that they test the bounds of realism. Most painters, as is well known, employ colors allegorically (see Landow). Certainly in The Hireling Shepherd the seductive red of the shepherd’s shirt and neckerchief and the shepherdess’s skirt, their flushed faces, and the bitten apple between the lamb’s hooves all echo the fall. Christ’s flock is being neglected. Purity is compromised. The only white (pure) spot in the painting is the shepherdess’s blouse, an emblem of the virtue she is about to lose. While some Victorian viewers understood the painting as an allegory of the threats of inebriation and sexual flirtation, others saw it as fundamentally about the danger to the flock during a contemporary moment of religious controversy (Tractarianism). In the Bible a hireling shepherd, who neglects the sheep, is purposely contrasted with the Good Shepherd in John 10: 12-13. Moreover, a quotation from Shakespeare’s King Lear accompanied the painting at its Royal Academy exhibition:

Sleepeth or waketh thou, jolly shepherd?
Thy sheep be in the corn;
And for one blast of thy minikin mouth,
Thy sheep shall take no harm. (

Hunt explained:

Shakespeare’s song represents a Shepherd who is neglecting his real duty of guarding the sheep: instead of using his voice in truthfully performing his duty, he is using his “minikin mouth” in some idle way. He was a type thus of other muddle headed pastor who instead of performing their services to their flock—which is in constant peril—discuss vain questions of no value to any human soul. . . while she feeds her lamb with sour apples his sheep have burst bounds and got into the corn. It is not merely that the wheat will be spoilt, but in eating it the sheep are doomed to destruction from becoming what farmers call “blown.” (as quoted by Landow, “Shakespeare Illustrated” 39)

In overturning conventions of form, color, and topic, through realism and allegory and in employing color excessively, Hunt risked the taunting some of his paintings received. Yet, through open air practices, exact attention to shadow and light, new pigments, new ground color, altered use of perspective, and the use of vibrant tones and color gradations and contrasts, Hunt and the Pre-Raphaelites forged a different path for optical truth in nineteenth-century art that would impress the exacting John Ruskin and inspire later artists from Whistler to the French Impressionists.

Given the confluence of many currents of change in British art and science that marked the decade of 1830-1840, the full impact of Eastlake’s edition of Goethe is difficult to measure. The repudiation of traditional uses of color and the development of new techniques might well have occurred without the appearance of Theory of Colours. Still, the man whom a contemporary described as the “Alpha and Omega of the Victorian art world” (“Sir Charles Lock Eastlake” 1) clearly helped British artists learn more about the effects of color and rethink their color techniques. Returning Renaissance coloring to British Victorian painters and stimulating a study of color effects under varied conditions, Eastlake built on the changes in palettes and practices that Constable, Turner, and Delacroix had already begun. He armed a new generation with a handbook: Goethe’s humanistic meditation on the colors of experience, supplemented by Eastlake’s detailed and unrivalled notes on optics and art.

published June 2013

Linda M. Shires is David and Ruth Gottesman Professor of English at Yeshiva University and the author, most recently, of Perspectives: Modes of Viewing and Knowing in Nineteenth-Century England (Ohio State, 2009). Author, co-author and editor of seven other books, including Rewriting the Victorians (Routledge, 1992, re-issue 2012), she is currently working on Thomas Hardy.


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