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Greek Color Theory and the Four Elements

by J.L. Benson.
Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Amherst Libraries, 2000.

About this book

Why does earlier Greek painting (Archaic/Classical) seem so clear and - deceptively - simple while the latest painting (Hellenistic /Graeco-Roman) is so much more complex but also familiar to us? Is there a single, coherent explanation that will cover this remarkable range? What can we recover from ancient documents and practices that can objectively be called "Greek color theory"?

Present day historians of ancient art consistently conceive of color in terms of triads: red, yellow, blue or, less often, red, green, blue. This habitude derives ultimately from the color wheel invented by J.W. Goethe some two centuries ago. So familiar and useful is his system that it is only natural to judge the color orientation of the Greeks on its basis. To do so, however, assumes, consciously or not, that the color understanding of our age is the definitive paradigm for that subject.

But could it be that the Greek understanding of color, if we can recover it in rational terms, has itself a paradigmatic quality offering unformulated but real reaches of meaning? And if so could we expand our consciousness of the nature of color and its evolving manifestations in history?

Greek philosophers thought in terms not of three, but of four, basic colors: black, red, yellow and white: yet little or no attention has been paid to this conception as a system of thought. Almost ironically, it is again Goethe's experiments in color, made in quite conscious opposition to Newtonian principles, which not only led him to color triads, but which also reveal that the Greek system of four colors is theoretically balanced by a second group of four colors: white, blue, violet and black. The earlier Greek painters were thoroughly absorbed in the first "tesserad" of colors, while later painters increasingly experimented with the second group.

Professor Benson has for the first time formulated in scientific terms a comprehensive explanation of four-color painting as well as of the larger issue of a Greek color theory implied in the cosmological vision of Empedokles. The theory itself is anchored in the essentially Greek concepts of polarity and complementation, which of themselves foster definite parameters of meaning for each color. This allows a completely new interpretation of Greek painting.

Copyright 2000, J. L. Benson. With appropriate attribution, permission is granted for the scholarly use, distribution and reproduction of this work in full, excepting those illustrations and figures for which the author does not hold the copyright. (See Credits in the text for image copyright owners.) A complete listing of all of the Figures used in the text is available for easy viewing from http://www.library.umass.edu/benson/jbgcimages.html

The text is available in two versions:

See also Greek Sculpture and the Four Elements, by J.L. Benson. Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Amherst Libraries, 2000.

For more information, contact:
Rachel Lewellen
Librarian for Digital Initiatives
Du Bois Library
545-3343
rlewellen@library.umass.edu