History of the Study and Use of Color
from Aristotle to Kandinsky
by Kenneth E. Burchett
The Edward Mellen Press, Lewiston, NY,
416 pp., illus. $129.95 (£ 79.95)
Reviewed by Wilfred Niels Arnold
University of Kansas Medical Center
Professor Burchett has performed a labor
of love, and his product is both a reliable
source and an encyclopedic reference for
historical aspects of color usage. This
book will certainly be one of the important
places to start for serious scholars who
wish to consult the original literature.
Part one is a short history of color harmony
with 10 chapters on topics ranging from
ancient concepts through color vision,
meanings, and information, to color guides.
The items are handled as short summaries.
In general, the author is more concerned
with a rapid introductory trip through
a large territory rather than analysis,
evaluation, or criticism of landmarks.
Part two is entitled "Books on color harmony
and color in art." I particularly appreciate
the figure on page 92, which depicts the
timelines for 12 outstanding authors in
the field. Dates of first copyright are
also indicated on the graphic. The viewer
can instantly see the possibilities for
overlapping influences. Chapters 13 to
24 are devoted to these dozen books, and
the individual themes are summarized.
The choice came out of the author's doctoral
dissertation (1976) and was based initially
on 32 items offered by five experts (Rudolf
Arnheim, Faber Birren, Frans Gerritsen,
David McAdam, and Siegfried Rösch)
who are given brief biographies in chapter
Part three, color bibliographies and indices,
is a large compilation, reflecting the
author's years of scholarship and experience
and is expected for a book of this type.
Specific references (of the order of 800)
occupy 42 pages of text. A general bibliography
has some 77 pages and over 1,400 references.
This is followed by subject lists, arranged
internally by dates of publication, e.g.
under "aesthetics" are found Hogarth,
1753 "The analysis of beauty," followed
by 95 others ending with Pavey, 2003 "Color
and humanism." (One can imagine great
utility here for term papers.) The index
of subjects is adequate and is not damaged
by the inclusion of some rather global
headings such as "art" and sub-headings
such as "color in art," because it is
much better to be redundant than frugal.
The index of names is extensive and good.
I sampled a few examples for which I have
a personal attachment and always found
fidelity between text and indexed page
number. Vincent van Gogh is given a total
of seven mentionsa bit skimpy
for one of his fans. Burchett may not
be among them because he makes a small
error by employing an upper case "Van"
throughout the text. Otherwise, typographical
and compositional errors are joyfully
There are a couple of quirks about the
title itself. The particular bracket of
Aristotle to Kandinsky is never properly
explained in the text. And the absence
of "color harmony" in the title is surprising
even though this term is mentioned a dozen
times by commentator Jack Davis in his
two page preface and is given repeated
prominence by the author himself in chapter
1, "Classical color harmony." A clue comes
from the introduction, "The knowledge
of color harmony, despite the effort which
has gone into color study in the past,
has never been assembled into an agreeable
modern concept. The essential requirements
for producing a satisfying affective response
to color remain unclear." This statement
will elicit significant argument in the
audience because we do know a few things
(from both neurophysiology and neuropsychology)
about complementary colors and so forth.
And Burchett's term "agreeable modern
concept" is surely not much of a goal
for the science of color.
The author's declared emphases were history,
philosophy, and bibliography rather than
example or experiment and, perhaps, justify
the absence of color platesit's
a pure black and white book except for
the covers. On the other hand, if the
aim were to decrease production costs,
then it was not reflected in the final
price. Unfortunately, this issue will
inhibit a wider reading that the book
deserves. (Reviewer's note: an academic
discount of 20% is apparently available
by dealing directly with the publisher.)
Dr. Burchett currently teaches color theory
at the University of Central Arkansas,
in the town of Conway.