Goethe’s psychology of color and emotion

Goethe’s psychology of color and emotion

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Photo by Luestling / Wikimedia

One of the first people to explore the theory of color is non other than famous German poet, artist, and politician Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. He published in 1810 the treatise on the nature, function, and psychology of colors entitled “Theory of Colors”, which was of paramount importance for prominent philosophers and physicists, despite its arguments being largely dismissed by the scientific community.

Goethe presented many radical ideas in his treatise, including one suggesting that darkness is not just the passive absence of light – as stressed by Newton – but an active ingredient. But by far the most fascinating one is related to the psychological impact that certain colors can have on our mood and emotions. Here are some of his interpretations regarding certain colors:

  • Yellow: “In its highest purity it always carries with it the nature of brightness, and has a serene, gay, softly exciting character. State is agreeable and gladdening, and in its utmost power is serene and noble, it is, on the other hand, extremely liable to contamination, and produces a very disagreeable effect if it is sullied, or in some degree tends to the minus side. Thus, the color of sulphur, which inclines to green, has a something unpleasant in it. When a yellow color is communicated to dull and coarse surfaces, such as common cloth, felt, or the like, on which it does not appear with full energy, the disagreeable effect alluded to is apparent. By a slight and scarcely perceptible change, the beautiful impression of fire and gold is transformed into one not undeserving the epithet foul; and the color of honour and joy reversed to that of ignominy and aversion. To this impression the yellow hats of bankrupts and the yellow circles on the mantles of Jews, may have owed their origin.”
  • Red-yellow: “All that we have said of yellow is applicable here, in a higher degree. The red-yellow gives an impression of warmth and gladness, since it represents the hue of the intenser glow of fire.”
  • Yellow-red: “In looking steadfastly at a perfectly yellow-red surface, the color seems actually to penetrate the organ. It produces an extreme excitement, and still acts thus when somewhat darkened. A yellow-red cloth disturbs and enrages animals. I have known men of education to whom its effect was intolerable if they chanced to see a person dressed in a scarlet cloak on a grey, cloudy day.”
  • Blue: “This color has a peculiar and almost indescribable effect on the eye. As a hue it is powerful — but it is on the negative side, and in its highest purity is, as it were, a stimulating negation. Its appearance, then, is a kind of contradiction between excitement and repose. Blue gives us an impression of cold, and thus, again, reminds us of shade. We have before spoken of its affinity with black. Rooms which are hung with pure blue, appear in some degree larger, but at the same time empty and cold. The appearance of objects seen through a blue glass is gloomy and melancholy.”
  • Red-blue: “Blue deepens very mildly into red, and thus acquires a somewhat active character, although it is on the passive side. Its exciting power is, however, of a different kind from that of the red-yellow. It may be said to disturb, rather than enliven.
  • Blue-red: “This unquiet feeling increases as the hue progresses, and it may be safely assumed, that a carpet of a perfectly pure deep blue-red would be intolerable. On this account, when it is used for dress, ribbons, or other ornaments, it is employed in a very attenuated and light state, and thus displays its character as above defined, in a peculiarly attractive manner.”
  • Red: “The effect of this color is as peculiar as its nature. It conveys an impression of gravity and dignity, and at the same time of grace and attractiveness. The first in its dark deep state, the latter in its light attenuated tint;”
  • Green: “The eye experiences a distinctly grateful impression from this color. If the two elementary colors are mixed in perfect equality so that neither predominates, the eye and the mind repose on the result of this junction as upon a simple color. The beholder has neither the wish nor the power to imagine a state beyond it. Hence for rooms to live in constantly, the green color is most generally selected.”

Although we can hardly say that Goethe’s interpretation of color is based on science, his work stands out as a fascinating account of how an artistic mind experiences color.

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Caroline Parker has a Bachelor of Arts degree in American Studies from the University of Bucharest. She is currently pursuing a master's degree in the same field. She specializes in gender issues, ethnic minorities, and has a passion for literature, but she loves to find out more about any subject she comes across. When she is not busy with her studies, she is attending conferences, seeing plays which deal with contemporary issues in society, traveling, taking photos for her Instagram account, and watching beauty related vlogs. She aims to become a published writer and to pursue a Ph.D. is the field of gender studies.

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