Page images

while at its two extremities we find yellow, red, and violet-colours which we best appreciate in smaller masses, and when contrasted with the other two, or with light neutral tints. We have here probably the foundations of a natural theory of harmonious colouring, derived from the order in which our colour-sensations have arisen and the nature of the emotions with which the several tints have been always associated. The agreeable and soothing influence of green light may be in part due to the green rays having little heating power; but this can hardly be the chief cause, for the blue and violet, though they contain less heat, are not generally felt to be so cool and sedative. But when we consider how dependent are all the higher animals on vegetation, and that man himself has been developed in the closest relation to it, we shall find, probably, a sufficient explanation. The green mantle with which the earth is overspread caused this one colour to predominate over all others that meet our sight, and to be almost always associated with the satisfaction of human wants. Where the grass is greenest, and vegetation most abundant and varicd, there has man always found his most suitable dwelling-place. In such spots lunger and thirst are unknown, and the choicest productions of nature gratify the appetite and please the eye. In the greatest heats of summer, coolness, shade, and moisture are found in the green forest glades; and we can thus understand how our visual apparatus has become especially adapted to receive pleasurable and soothing sensations from this class of rays.

Supposed increase of Colour-perception within the llistoricul Period.-Some writers believe that our



power of distinguishing colours has increased even in historical times. The subject has attracted the attention of German philologists, and I have been furnished by a friend with some notes from a work of the late Lazarus Geiger, entitled, Zur Entwickelungsgeschichte der Jenschheit (Stuttgart, 1871). According to this writer it appears that the colour of grass and foliage is never alluded to as a beauty in the Vedas or the Zendavesta, though these productions are continually extolled for other properties. Blue is described by terms denoting sometimes green, sometimes black, showing that it was hardly recognised as a distinct colour. The colour of the sky is never mentioned in the Bible, the Vedas, the Homeric poems, or even in the Koran. The first distinct allusion to it known to Geiger is in an Arabic work of the ninth century. “Hyacintline locks” are black locks, and Homer calls iron violet-coloured.” Yellow was often confounded with green ; but, along with red, it was one of the earliest colours to receive a distinct name. Aristotle names three colours in the rainbow-red, yellow, and green. Two centuries earlier Xenophanes had described the rainbow as purple, reddish, and yellow. The Pythagorcans admitted four primary colours—white, black, red, and yellow; the Chinese the same, with the addition of green.

Simultaneously with the first publication of this essay in Macmillan's Magazine, there appeared in the Nineteenth Century an article by Mr. Gladstone on the Colour-sense, chiefly as exhibited in the poems of Homer. He shows that the few colour-terms used by Homer are applied to such different objects that they

cannot denote colours only, as we perceive and differentiate them ; but seem more applicable to different intensities of light and shade. Thus, to give one example, the word porphureos is applied to clothing, to the rainbow, to blood, to a cloud, to the sea, and to death ; and no one meaning will suit all these applications except comparative darkness. In other cases the same thing has many different epithets applied to it according to its different aspects or conditions ; and as the colours of objects are generally indicated in ancient writings by comparative rather than by abstract terms,--as winecolour, fire-colour, bronze-colour, &c.—it becomes still more difficult to determine in any particular case what colour was really meant. Mr. Gladstone's general conclusion is, that the archaic man had a positive perception only of degrees of light and darkness, and that in Homer's time he had advanced to the imperfect discrimination of red and yellow, but no further; the green of grass and foliage or the blue of the sky being never once referred to.

These curious facts cannot, however, be held to prove so recent an origin for colour-sensations as they would at first sight appear to do, because we have seen that both flowers and fruits have become diversely coloured in avlaptation to the visual powers of insects, birds, and mammals. Red, being a very common colour of ripe fruits which attract birds to devour them and thus distribute their seeds, we may be sure that the contrast of red and green is to them very well marked. It is indeed just possible that birds may have a more advanced development of the colour sense than mammals, because the teeth of the latter commonly grind up and

destroy the seeds of the larger fruits and nuts which they derour, and which are not usually coloured ; but the irritating effect of bright colours on some of them does not support this view. It seems most probable therefore 'that man's perception of colour in the time of Homer was little if any inferior to what it is now, but that, owing to a variety of causes, no precise nomencla. ture of colours had become established. One of these causes probably was, that the colours of the objects of most importance, and those which were most frequently referred to in songs and poems, were uncertain and subject to variation. Blood was light or dark red, or when dry, lılackish ; iron was grey or dark or rusty; bronze was shining or dull; foliage was of all shales of yellow, green, or brown; and horses or cattle had no one distinctive colour. Other objects, as the sea, the sky, and wine, changed in tint according to the light, the time of day, and the mode of viewing them; and thus colour, indicated at first by reference to certain coloured objects, bad no fixity. Things which had more definite and purer colours-as certain species of flowers, birds, and insects—were probably too insignificant or too much despised to serve as colour-terms; and even these often vary, either in the same or in allied species, in a manner which would render their use unsuitable. Colour-names, being abstractions, must always have been a late development in language, and their comparative unimportance in an early state of society and of the arts would still further retard their appearance; and this seems quite in accordance with the various facts set forth by Mr. Gladstone and the other writers referred to. The fact that colour-blindness is so pre


valent even now, is however an indication that the fully developed colour-sense is not of primary importance to man. If it had been so, natural selection would long ago have eliminated the discase itself, and its tendency to rccur would hardly be so strong as it appears to be.

Concluding Remarks on the Colour-sense.--The preceding considerations enable us to comprehend, both why a perception of difference of colour has become developed in the higher animals, and also why colours require to be presented or combined in varying proportions in order to be agrecable to us. But they hardly seem to afford a sufficient explanation, either of the wonderful contrasts and total unlikeness of the sensations produced in us by the chief primary colours, or of the exquisite charm and pleasure we derive from colour itself, as distinguished from variously-coloured objects, in the case of which association of ideas comes into play. It is harilly conceivable that the material uses of colour to animals and to ourselves, required such very distinct and powerfullycontrasted sensations; and it is still less conceivable that a sense of delight in colour per se should have been necessary for our utilization of it.

The emotions excited by colour and by music, alike, seem to rise above the level of a world developed on purely utilitarian principles.

« EelmineJätka »