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"Si vera nostra sunt aut falsa, erunt talia, licet nostra per vitam defendimus. Post fata nostra pueri qui nunc ludunt nostri judices erunt."

[Pg xxxvii]


The desire of knowledge is first stimulated in us when remarkable phenomena attract our attention. In order that this attention be continued, it is necessary that we should feel some interest in exercising it, and thus by degrees we become better acquainted with the object of our curiosity. During this process of observation we remark at first only a vast variety which presses indiscriminately on our view; we are forced to separate, to distinguish, and again to combine; by which means at last a certain order arises which admits of being surveyed with more or less satisfaction.

To accomplish this, only in a certain degree, in any department, requires an unremitting and close application; and we find, for this reason, that men prefer substituting a general theoretical view, or some system of explanation, for the facts themselves, instead of taking the trouble to make themselves first acquainted with cases in detail and then constructing a whole.

The attempt to describe and class the phenomena of colours has been only twice made: first by Theophrastus,[1] and in modern times by[Pg xxxviii] Boyle. The pretensions of the present essay to the third place will hardly be disputed.

Our historical survey enters into further details. Here we merely observe that in the last century such a classification was not to be thought of, because Newton had based his hypothesis on a phenomenon exhibited in a complicated and secondary state; and to this the other cases that forced themselves on the attention were contrived to be referred, when they could not be passed over in silence; just as an astronomer would do, if from whim he were to place the moon in the centre of our system; he would be compelled to make the earth, sun, and planets revolve round the lesser body, and be forced to disguise and gloss over the error of his first assumption by ingenious calculations and plausible statements.

In our prefatory observations we assumed the reader to be acquainted with what was known respecting light; here we assume the same with regard to the eye. We observed that all nature manifests itself by means of colours to the sense of sight. We now assert, extraordinary as it may in some degree appear, that the eye sees no form, inasmuch as light, shade, and colour together constitute that which to our vision distinguishes object from object, and the parts of an object from each other. From these three, light, shade, and colour, we construct the visible[Pg xxxix] world, and thus, at the same time, make painting possible, an art which has the power of producing on a flat surface a much more perfect visible world than the actual one can be.

The eye may be said to owe its existence to light, which calls forth, as it were, a sense that is akin to itself; the eye, in short, is formed with reference to light, to be fit for the action of light; the light it contains corresponding with the light without.

We are here reminded of a significant adage in constant use with the ancient Ionian school—"Like is only known by Like;" and again, of the words of an old mystic writer, which may be thus rendered, "If the eye were not sunny, how could we perceive light? If God's own strength lived not in us, how could we delight in Divine things?" This immediate affinity between light and the eye will be denied by none; to consider them as identical in substance is less easy to comprehend. It will be more intelligible to assert that a dormant light resides in the eye, and that it may be excited by the slightest cause from within or from without. In darkness we can, by an effort of imagination, call up the brightest images; in dreams objects appear to us as in broad daylight; awake, the slightest external action of light is perceptible, and if the organ suffers an actual shock, light and colours spring forth.[Pg xl] Here, however, those who are wont to proceed according to a certain method, may perhaps observe that as yet we have not decidedly explained what colour is. This question, like the definition of light and the eye, we would for the present evade, and would appeal to our inquiry itself, where we have circumstantially shown how colour is produced. We have only therefore to repeat that colour is a law of nature in relation with the sense of sight. We must assume, too, that every one has this sense, that every one knows the operation of nature on it, for to a blind man it would be impossible to speak of colours.

That we may not, however, appear too anxious to shun such an explanation, we would restate what has been said as follows: colour is an elementary phenomenon in nature adapted to the sense of vision; a phenomenon which, like all others, exhibits itself by separation and contrast, by commixture and union, by augmentation and neutralization, by communication and dissolution: under these general terms its nature may be best comprehended.

We do not press this mode of stating the subject on any one. Those who, like ourselves, find it convenient, will readily adopt it; but we have no desire to enter the lists hereafter in its defence. From time immemorial it has been dangerous to treat of colour; so much so, that[Pg xli] one of our predecessors ventured on a certain occasion to say, "The ox becomes furious if a red cloth is shown to him; but the philosopher, who speaks of colour only in a general way, begins to rave."

Nevertheless, if we are to proceed to give some account of our work, to which we have appealed, we must begin by explaining how we have classed the different conditions under which colour is produced. We found three modes in which it appears; three classes of colours, or rather three exhibitions of them all. The distinctions of these classes are easily expressed.

Thus, in the first instance, we considered colours, as far as they may be said to belong to the eye itself, and to depend on an action and re-action of the organ; next, they attracted our attention as perceived in, or by means of, colourless mediums; and lastly, where we could consider them as belonging to particular substances. We have denominated the first, physiological, the second, physical, the third, chemical colours. The first are fleeting and not to be arrested; the next are passing, but still for a while enduring; the last may be made permanent for any length of time.

Having separated these classes and kept them as distinct as possible, with a view to a clear, didactic exposition, we have been enabled at[Pg xlii] the same time to exhibit them in an unbroken series, to connect the fleeting with the somewhat more enduring, and these again with the permanent hues; and thus, after having carefully attended to a distinct classification in the first instance, to do away with it again when a larger view was desirable.

In a fourth division of our work we have therefore treated generally what was previously detailed under various particular conditions, and have thus, in fact, given a sketch for a future theory of colours. We will here only anticipate our statements so far as to observe, that light and darkness, brightness and obscurity, or if a more general expression is preferred, light and its absence, are necessary to the production of colour. Next to the light, a colour appears which we call yellow; another appears next to the darkness, which we name blue. When these, in their purest state, are so mixed that they are exactly equal, they produce a third colour called green. Each of the two first-named colours can however of itself produce a new tint by being condensed or darkened. They thus acquire a reddish appearance which can be increased to so great a degree that the original blue or yellow is hardly to be recognised in it: but the intensest and purest red, especially in physical cases, is produced when the two extremes of the yellow-red and blue-red are[Pg xliii] united. This is the actual state of the appearance and generation of colours. But we can also assume an existing red in addition to the definite existing blue and yellow, and we can produce contrariwise, by mixing, what we directly produced by augmentation or deepening. With these three or six colours, which may be conveniently included in a circle, the elementary doctrine of colours is alone concerned. All other modifications, which may be extended to infinity, have reference more to the application,—have reference to the technical operations of the painter and dyer, and the various purposes of artificial life. To point out another general quality, we may observe that colours throughout are to be considered as half-lights, as half-shadows, on which account if they are so mixed as reciprocally to destroy their specific hues, a shadowy tint, a grey, is produced.

In the fifth division of our inquiry we had proposed to point out the relations in which we should wish our doctrine of colours to stand to other pursuits. Important as this part of our work is, it is perhaps on this very account not so successful as we could wish. Yet when we reflect that strictly speaking these relations cannot be described before they exist, we may console ourselves if we have in some degree failed in endeavouring for the first time to define them. For undoubtedly we should first[Pg xliv] wait to see how those whom we have endeavoured to serve, to whom we have intended to make an agreeable and useful offering, how such persons, we say, will accept the result of our utmost exertion: whether they will adopt it, whether they will make use of it and follow it up, or whether they will repel, reject, and suffer it to remain unassisted and neglected.

Meanwhile, we venture to express what we believe and hope. From the philosopher we believe we merit thanks for having traced the phenomena of colours to their first sources, to the circumstances under which they simply appear and are, and beyond which no further explanation respecting them is possible. It will, besides, be gratifying to him that we have arranged the appearances described in a form that admits of being easily surveyed, even should he not altogether approve of the arrangement itself.

The medical practitioner, especially him whose study it is to watch over the organ of sight, to preserve it, to assist its defects and to cure its disorders, we reckon to make especially our friend. In the chapter on the physiological colours, in the Appendix relating to those that are more strictly pathological, he will find himself quite in his own province. We are not without hopes of seeing the physiological phenomena,—a hitherto neglected, and, we may add, most important branch of the theory of[Pg xlv] colours,—completely investigated through the exertions of those individuals who in our own times are treating this department with success.

The investigator of nature should receive us cordially, since we enable him to exhibit the doctrine of colours in the series of other elementary phenomena, and at the same time enable him to make use of a corresponding nomenclature, nay, almost the same words and designations as under the other rubrics. It is true we give him rather more trouble as a teacher, for the chapter of colours is not now to be dismissed as heretofore with a few paragraphs and experiments; nor will the scholar submit to be so scantily entertained as he has hitherto been, without murmuring. On the other hand, an advantage will afterwards arise out of this: for if the Newtonian doctrine was easily learnt, insurmountable difficulties presented themselves in its application. Our theory is perhaps more difficult to comprehend, but once known, all is accomplished, for it carries its application along with it.

The chemist who looks upon colours as indications by which he may detect the more secret properties of material things, has hitherto found much inconvenience in the denomination and description of colours; nay, some have been induced after closer and nicer examination to look upon colour as an uncertain and fallacious criterion[Pg xlvi] in chemical operations. Yet we hope by means of our arrangement and the nomenclature before alluded to, to bring colour again into credit, and to awaken the conviction that a progressive, augmenting, mutable quality, a quality which admits of alteration even to inversion, is not fallacious, but rather calculated to bring to light the most delicate operations of nature.

In looking a little further round us, we are not without fears that we may fail to satisfy another class of scientific men. By an extraordinary combination of circumstances the theory of colours has been drawn into the province and before the tribunal of the mathematician, a tribunal to which it cannot be said to be amenable. This was owing to its affinity with the other laws of vision which the mathematician was legitimately called upon to treat. It was owing, again, to another circumstance: a great mathematician had investigated the theory of colours, and having been mistaken in his observations as an experimentalist, he employed the whole force of his talent to give consistency to this mistake. Were both these circumstances considered, all misunderstanding would presently be removed, and the mathematician would willingly co-operate with us, especially in the physical department of the theory.

To the practical man, to the dyer, on the other hand, our labour must be altogether acceptable;[Pg xlvii] for it was precisely those who reflected on the facts resulting from the operations of dyeing who were the least satisfied with the old theory: they were the first who perceived the insufficiency of the Newtonian doctrine. The conclusions of men are very different according to the mode in which they approach a science or branch of knowledge; from which side, through which door they enter. The literally practical man, the manufacturer, whose attention is constantly and forcibly called to the facts which occur under his eye, who experiences benefit or detriment from the application of his convictions, to whom loss of time and money is not indifferent, who is desirous of advancing, who aims at equalling or surpassing what others have accomplished,—such a person feels the unsoundness and erroneousness of a theory much sooner than the man of letters, in whose eyes words consecrated by authority are at last equivalent to solid coin; than the mathematician, whose formula always remains infallible, even although the foundation on which it is constructed may not square with it. Again, to carry on the figure before employed, in entering this theory from the side of painting, from the side of æsthetic[2] colouring generally, we shall be[Pg xlviii] found to have accomplished a most thank-worthy office for the artist. In the sixth part we have endeavoured to define the effects of colour as addressed at once to the eye and mind, with a view to making them more available for the purposes of art. Although much in this portion, and indeed throughout, has been suffered to remain as a sketch, it should be remembered that all theory can in strictness only point out leading principles, under the guidance of which, practice may proceed with vigour and be enabled to attain legitimate results.




We naturally place these colours first, because they belong altogether, or in a great degree, to the subject[1]—to the eye itself. They are the foundation of the whole doctrine, and open to our view the chromatic harmony on which so much difference of opinion has existed. They have been hitherto looked upon as extrinsic and casual, as illusion and infirmity: their appearances have been known from ancient date; but, as they were too evanescent to be arrested, they were banished into the region of phantoms, and under this idea have been very variously described.


Thus they are called colores adventicii by Boyle; imaginarii and phantastici by Rizetti; by Buffon, couleurs accidentelles; by Scherfer, scheinfarben (apparent colours); ocular illusions and deceptions of sight[Pg 2] by many; by Hamberger, vitia fugitiva; by Darwin, ocular spectra.


We have called them physiological because they belong to the eye in a healthy state; because we consider them as the necessary conditions of vision; the lively alternating action of which, with reference to external objects and a principle within it, is thus plainly indicated.


To these we subjoin the pathological colours, which, like all deviations from a constant law, afford a more complete insight into the nature of the physiological colours.



The retina, after being acted upon by light or darkness, is found to be in two different states, which are entirely opposed to each other.


If we keep the eyes open in a totally dark place, a certain sense of privation is experienced. The organ is abandoned to itself; it retires into itself. That stimulating and grateful contact is wanting by means of which it is connected with the external world, and becomes part of a whole.

[Pg 3]


If we look on a white, strongly illumined surface, the eye is dazzled, and for a time is incapable of distinguishing objects moderately lighted.


The whole of the retina is acted on in each of these extreme states, and thus we can only experience one of these effects at a time. In the one case (6) we found the organ in the utmost relaxation and susceptibility; in the other (7) in an overstrained state, and scarcely susceptible at all.


If we pass suddenly from the one state to the other, even without supposing these to be the extremes, but only, perhaps, a change from bright to dusky, the difference is remarkable, and we find that the effects last for some time.


In passing from bright daylight to a dusky place we distinguish nothing at first: by degrees the eye recovers its susceptibility; strong eyes sooner than weak ones; the former in a minute, while the latter may require seven or eight minutes.


The fact that the eye is not susceptible to faint[Pg 4] impressions of light, if we pass from light to comparative darkness, has led to curious mistakes in scientific observations. Thus an observer, whose eyes required some time to recover their tone, was long under the impression that rotten wood did not emit light at noon-day, even in a dark room. The fact was, he did not see the faint light, because he was in the habit of passing from bright sunshine to the dark room, and only subsequently remained so long there that the eye had time to recover itself.

The same may have happened to Doctor Wall, who, in the daytime, even in a dark room, could hardly perceive the electric light of amber.

Our not seeing the stars by day, as well as the improved appearance of pictures seen through a double tube, is also to be attributed to the same cause.


If we pass from a totally dark place to one illumined by the sun, we are dazzled. In coming from a lesser degree of darkness to light that is not dazzling, we perceive all objects clearer and better: hence eyes that have been in a state of repose are in all cases better able to perceive moderately distinct appearances.

Prisoners who have been long confined in darkness acquire so great a susceptibility of the retina, that even in the dark (probably a darkness[Pg 5] very slightly illumined) they can still distinguish objects.


In the act which we call seeing, the retina is at one and the same time in different and even opposite states. The greatest brightness, short of dazzling, acts near the greatest darkness. In this state we at once perceive all the intermediate gradations of chiaro-scuro, and all the varieties of hues.


We will proceed in due order to consider and examine these elements of the visible world, as well as the relation in which the organ itself stands to them, and for this purpose we take the simplest objects.

[1]The German distinction between subject and object is so generally understood and adopted, that it is hardly necessary to explain that the subject is the individual, in this case the beholder; the object, all that is without him.—T.



In the same manner as the retina generally is affected by brightness and darkness, so it is affected by single bright or dark objects. If light and dark produce different results on the whole retina, so black and white objects seen at[Pg 6] the same time produce the same states together which light and dark occasioned in succession.


A dark object appears smaller than a bright one of the same size. Let a white disk be placed on a black ground, and a black disk on a white ground, both being exactly similar in size; let them be seen together at some distance, and we shall pronounce the last to be about a fifth part smaller than the other. If the black circle be made larger by so much, they will appear equal.[1]


Thus Tycho de Brahe remarked that the moon in conjunction (the darker state) appears about a fifth part smaller than when in opposition (the bright full state). The first crescent appears to belong to a larger disk than the remaining dark portion, which can sometimes be distinguished at the period of the new moon. Black dresses make people appear smaller than light ones. Lights seen behind an edge make an apparent notch in it. A ruler, behind which the flame of a light just appears, seems to us indented. The rising or setting sun appears to make a notch in the horizon.

Plate 1.


Black, as the equivalent of darkness, leaves[Pg 7] the organ in a state of repose; white, as the representative of light, excites it. We may, perhaps, conclude from the above experiment (16) that the unexcited retina, if left to itself, is drawn together, and occupies a less space than in its active state, produced by the excitement of light.

Hence Kepler says very beautifully: "Certum est vel in retinâ caussâ picturæ, vel in spiritibus caussâ impressionis, exsistere dilatationem lucidorum."—Paralip. in Vitellionem, p. 220. Scherfer expresses a similar conjecture.—Note A.


However this may be, both impressions derived from such objects remain in the organ itself, and last for some time, even when the external cause is removed. In ordinary experience we scarcely notice this, for objects are seldom presented to us which are very strongly relieved from each other, and we avoid looking at those appearances that dazzle the sight. In glancing from one object to another, the succession of images appears to us distinct; we are not aware that some portion of the impression derived from the object first contemplated passes to that which is next looked at.


If in the morning, on waking, when the eye is very susceptible, we look intently at the bars[Pg 8] of a window relieved against the dawning sky, and then shut our eyes or look towards a totally dark place, we shall see a dark cross on a light ground before us for some time.


Every image occupies a certain space on the retina, and of course a greater or less space in proportion as the object is seen near or at a distance. If we shut the eyes immediately after looking at the sun we shall be surprised to find how small the image it leaves appears.


If, on the other hand, we turn the open eye towards the side of a room, and consider the visionary image in relation to other objects, we shall always see it larger in proportion to the distance of the surface on which it is thrown. This is easily explained by the laws of perspective, according to which a small object near covers a great one at a distance.


The duration of these visionary impressions varies with the powers or structure of the eye in different individuals, just as the time necessary for the recovery of the tone of the retina varies in passing from brightness to darkness (10): it can be measured by minutes and seconds,[Pg 9] indeed much more exactly than it could formerly have been by causing a lighted linstock to revolve rapidly, so as to appear a circle.—Note B.


But the force with which an impinging light impresses the eye is especially worthy of attention. The image of the sun lasts longest; other objects, of various degrees of brightness, leave the traces of their appearance on the eye for a proportionate time.


These images disappear by degrees, and diminish at once in distinctness and in size.


They are reduced from the contour inwards, and the impression on some persons has been that in square images the angles become gradually blunted till at last a diminished round image floats before the eye.


Such an image, when its impression is no more observable, can, immediately after, be again revived on the retina by opening and shutting the eye, thus alternately exciting and resting it.

[Pg 10]


Images may remain on the retina in morbid affections of the eye for fourteen, seventeen minutes, or even longer. This indicates extreme weakness of the organ, its inability to recover itself; while visions of persons or things which are the objects of love or aversion indicate the connexion between sense and thought.


If, while the image of the window-bars before mentioned lasts, we look upon a light grey surface, the cross will then appear light and the panes dark. In the first case (20) the image was like the original picture, so that the visionary impression also could continue unchanged; but in the present instance our attention is excited by a contrary effect being produced. Various examples have been given by observers of nature.


The scientific men who made observations in the Cordilleras saw a bright appearance round the shadows of their heads on some clouds. This example is a case in point; for, while they fixed their eyes on the dark shadow, and at the same time moved from the spot, the compensatory light image appeared to float round the[Pg 11] real dark one. If we look at a black disk on a light grey surface, we shall presently, by changing the direction of the eyes in the slightest degree, see a bright halo floating round the dark circle.

A similar circumstance happened to myself: for while, as I sat in the open air, I was talking to a man who stood at a little distance from me relieved on a grey sky, it appeared to me, as I slightly altered the direction of my eyes, after having for some time looked fixedly at him, that his head was encircled with a dazzling light.

In the same way probably might be explained the circumstance that persons crossing dewy meadows at sunrise see a brightness round each other's heads[2]; the brightness in this case may be also iridescent, as the phenomena of refraction come into the account.

Thus again it has been asserted that the shadows of a balloon thrown on clouds were bordered with bright and somewhat variegated circles.

Beccaria made use of a paper kite in some experiments on electricity. Round this kite appeared a small shining cloud varying in size; the same brightness was even observed round part of the string. Sometimes it disappeared,[Pg 12] and if the kite moved faster the light appeared to float to and fro for a few moments on the place before occupied. This appearance, which could not be explained by those who observed it at the time, was the image which the eye retained of the kite relieved as a dark mass on a bright sky; that image being changed into a light mass on a comparatively dark background.

In optical and especially in chromatic experiments, where the observer has to do with bright lights whether colourless or coloured, great care should be taken that the spectrum which the eye retains in consequence of a previous observation does not mix with the succeeding one, and thus affect the distinctness and purity of the impression.


These appearances have been explained as follows: That portion of the retina on which the dark cross (29) was impressed is to be considered in a state of repose and susceptibility. On this portion therefore the moderately light surface acted in a more lively manner than on the rest of the retina, which had just been impressed with the light through the panes, and which, having thus been excited by a much stronger brightness, could only view the grey surface as a dark.

[Pg 13]


This mode of explanation appears sufficient for the cases in question, but, in the consideration of phenomena hereafter to be adduced, we are forced to trace the effects to higher sources.


The eye after sleep exhibits its vital elasticity more especially by its tendency to alternate its impressions, which in the simplest form change from dark to light, and from light to dark. The eye cannot for a moment remain in a particular state determined by the object it looks upon. On the contrary, it is forced to a sort of opposition, which, in contrasting extreme with extreme, intermediate degree with intermediate degree, at the same time combines these opposite impressions, and thus ever tends to a whole, whether the impressions are successive, or simultaneous and confined to one image.


Perhaps the peculiarly grateful sensation which we experience in looking at the skilfully treated chiaro-scuro of colourless pictures and similar works of art arises chiefly from the simultaneous impression of a whole, which by the organ itself is sought, rather than arrived at, in succession, and which, whatever may be the result, can never be arrested.

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