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GOETHE, Johann Wolfgang (1749–1832)

Zur Farbenlehre. Erster - Zweiter Band. + Erklärung der zu Goethe’s Farbenlehre gehörigen Tafeln.
Tübingen, in der J. G. Cotta’schen Buchhandlung, 1810.

First edition of this monumental work, Goethe’s largest and in his own opinion best work. It is known as a fierce attack on Newton’s demonstration that white light is composite. In its physiological aspects Goethe’s colour theory remains an epochmaking work. The science of physiological optics was directly stimulated by it and one of its dominant schools in essence represented his approach long after him. Volume I contains a discussion of physiological, physical, and chemical colours and a detailed study of Newton’s Opticks [Enthüllung der Theorie Newtons]. Volume II is a historical study of colours as shown in the works of famous theorists and artists of Greece, Rome, the Middle Ages, the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries. There are important sections on Voltaire’s regard for Newton, on Robert Hooke, Robert Boyle, Erasmus Darwin, Pieter van Musschenbroek, Benjamin Franklin and many others. The Printing of volume I started already in 1806. Goethe wrote in his diary: ”Mit dem Abdruck waren bis zum 13. Bogen des ersten Theils und bis zum 4. des zweiten gelangt, als mit dem 14. October das grimmigste Unheil über uns hereinbrach und die übereilt geflüchteten Papiere unwiederbringlich zu vernischten drohte” [the occupation of Weimar by Napoleon’s army]. However, the work could be continued and in January 1807, the first part of vol. I was published, dated 1808. In 1810, the first part of vol. I was reissued with a new title dated 1810, and now enlarged with a second part (Polemischer Theil). Volume II and the Atlas followed later in the year. The above copy of the atlas seems to be a mixture of the first and second printing (cf Schmid 57, 58, 77, who gives all the points). ”Goethe was not entirely wrong when he considered the colour theory to be his best natural-scientific work. In fact, it contains a section in which Goethe’s finest gifts as an observer of nature are given full play as nowhere else – namely, the chapter on ’physiological colours’. In this chapter, as well as here and there in other parts of the work, are a large number of observations of subjective colour-perceptions, recorded with all exactness of a scientist and with the keen insight of an artist. These detailed observations concerning colour harmony, colour contrats, complementary colours, and other optico-physiological phenomena, attracted great attention even among his contemporaries; . . . and even in our own day, when mental physiology has become a specialized science, they have won justifiable recognition.” (Nordenskiöld).

Collation: Vol. I: pp xlviii, 1-352, Zweiter, polemischer Theil: [353]-654; Vol. II: pp xxviii, 757, (1) errata. Atlas: Erklärung: pp 24; Anzeige und Uebersicht des Goethischen Werkes zur Farbenlehre [by J.G. Cotta]: pp 12. With 17 engraved plates numbered I-II, IIa, III-XVI, all hand-coloured under Goethe’s supervision, except five plates which are uncoloured: IIa, VII, VIII, XV, and XVI.

Binding: Three volumes. Contemporary half calf, dressed with leather oil, except atlas, marbled boards.

Provenance: Pencil ownership signature on titles, dated 1929, and a few pages with pencil annotations.

References: Schmid, Günther. Goethe und die Nauturwissenschaften, Eine Bibliographie (1940), Nos. 55, 56, 77 |?]; DSB, V, pp 442-446; Hirschberg/Blodi § 1010, vol. 11 pp 23-30; Albert 869; Nordenskiöld, pp 282-284. Waller 11351-52 (second edition, 1812).

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