Rare & Beautiful

A Dialogue with Color

Color theory explored in three jewels of book-making.

By Peter Kraus June 25, 2019

Color has been a subject of fascination and importance for artists and designers since our earliest times and cultures. Over the centuries, numerous books have explored theories of color—how it used and perceived.

Three books are highlighted here, testifying to the range of color studies. These include a perennial favorite from the 19th century that still remains in print, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Theory of Colours; an undiscovered jewel from the beginning of the 20th century, Color Problems, by Emily Vanderpoel, an artist and author ahead of her time; and the instruction manual (Tagebuch, or journal) created by Bauhas master Johannes Itten, whose work on color would have an impact on everything from modern art to product design.

Page from Johannes Itten’s Tagebuch, 1930.


Goethes Theory of Colours (1810), translated from the original German, with notes by Charles Lock Eastlake (1840)

A landmark book in the history of color theory, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Zur Farbenlehre was first published in 1810, and was the first to describe the psychological effects of color. Published in English translation in Britain thirty years later, it has remained highly influential on artists and creative thinkers of all kinds to this day.

Page from Theory of Colours.

In The Science of Art (1992), Martin Kemp wrote: “For a profoundly creative and challenging response to Goethe’s science by a painter of real genius we have to look to Britain, to the art of Turner. Turner was almost seventy by the time he made his detailed study of Goethe’s Farbenlehre in Charles Eastlake’s 1840 annotated translation, but his response was not that of an old man rigidly set in his ways.

Two complex paintings of supreme quality were the remarkable result of his ‘dialogue’ with Goethe. His immediate reactions on reading Goethe's treatise are contained in a series of marginal notes in his copy, ranging from approbatory references to terse exclamations of disagreement. ‘Poor Dame Nature’ he wrote, when he felt that Goethe was doing less than justice to the ultimate source of all visual beauty. He was attracted by much of what the German author was saying, particularly with respect to the integral relationship of colour and tone . . .” (p. 299)

The book’s continuing importance is attested to by the fact that it is currently in print in various versions.


Color Problems: A Practical Manual for the Lay Student of Color. by Emily Noyes Vanderpoel (1903)

A magnificent and little-known jewel of American book-making. Like many other books on color theory, the illustrations, while being presented as information, actually create a stunning illustrated book, giving the work two distinct functions. Vanderpoel was a New York artist, author, and collector of oriental art objects.

Page from Color Problems.

Color Problems was intended as a manual for all those (decorators, designers, lithographers, etc.) requiring a fuller understanding of color theory. Vanderpoel’s own theory was based on 10 x 10 grids that break down the color proportions of real objects, most of which came from the author’s personal collection of antiques.

The book is not directed specifically at women, however, they were certainly a significant part of the target audience. Vanderpoel wrote that understanding the intricacies of color theory can be of value to milliners and dressmakers — occupations often held by women during the Victorian era — along with housewives who dabbled in home decor. She refers to Chevreul, Bezold, Rood, Church, and others as having written more technical treatises or artists’ manuals. The text focuses on color contrasts and harmonies, with 117 plates printed in color, and includes an appendix of definitions and terms and an interesting bibliography of fifty titles in several languages.

Vanderpoel was certainly ahead of her time, being almost a decade ahead of Wassily Kandinsky, but interestingly enough working at the same time as the recently heralded Swedish artist Hilma af Klint.


Tagebuch: Beiträge zu einem Kontrapunkt der Bildenden Kunst by Johannes Itten (1930)

Johannes Itten taught at the Bauhaus from 1919 to 1923. Tagebuch illustrates his teaching philosophy and expounds on his theories of color, composition, and form.

Page from Tagebuch.

Itten’s development of the foundation class for the Bauhaus school revolutionized art education. Instead of having students copy works of the Old Masters, he encouraged them to explore their own feelings and to experiment with colors, materials, and forms. His course emphasized three elements: studies of natural forms and colors, the analysis of canonical artworks, and life drawing. It pioneered techniques that remain central to teaching in art schools today, including the encouragement of self-expression and experimentation with materials and techniques. All students were required to complete this training before moving onto more specific courses.

Itten developed an intricate theory of color, which associated color palettes with types of people and seasons. His work on color contrasts, which characterized seven different types of comparisons, was important for the development of Op Art, but would also influence palettes designed by cosmetic companies in the late 20th century. The text is lithographed from Itten's own handwriting and is profusely illustrated with his designs, some of which were colored by hand using the pochoir method.

Itten’s Tagebuch is a legendary rarity, because the bulk of the edition (a total of 330) was destroyed during World War II.

For those interested in finding out more about these books, including possible acquisition (Vanderpoel and Itten), please contact Peter Kraus at Ursus Books & Gallery: (212) 772-8787 or ursus@ursusbooks.com:

Emily Vanderpoel. Color Problems: A Practical Manual for the Lay Student of Colorxv, 137 pp. Illustrated with 117 color plates, each on a stub, and an envelope containing a chart and two plastic color squares and mask. 8vo., 194 x 145 mm, bound in original green cloth, gilt on front cover and spine. New York: Longmans, Green & Co., 1903. This fine copy is complete with the mask, which is usually missing, inside the pocket of the rear cover. $2,500.00.

Johannes Itten. Tagebuch: Beiträge zu einem Kontrapunkt der Bildenden Kunst. 114 pp. Illustrated throughout by Itten, including several color pochoir plates and numerous tipped-in photographs. Oblong folio, 390 x 525, bound in publisher's blue cloth and matching slipcase. Berlin: Verlag der Itten-Schule, 1930. This is one of the surviving copies (of a total edition of 330), which had remained in sheets, and was bound up and offered for sale in 1962. $4,750.00.

Peter Kraus is the founder and current owner of Ursus Books & Gallery in Manhattan, which offers a comprehensive selection of art reference books, superb copies of rare books in all fields, and decorative prints.


This is the second installment in a collaboration between Designers & Books and Peter Kraus’s Ursus Books & Gallery in New York highlighting important books from the past.

Please note that Designers & Books will receive an accommodation from sales resulting from this collaboration.


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