Encyclopedia of Color Science and Technology

2016 Edition
| Editors: Ming Ronnier Luo

Ostwald, Friedrich Wilhelm

  • Rolf G. Kuehni
Reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-1-4419-8071-7_310


Wilhelm Ostwald was born on September 2, 1853, in Riga, the capital city of Latvia, to parents of German decent. He studied chemistry at the University of Dorpat (now Tartu, Estonia) where he received his PhD in 1878 and lectured at the Polytechnicum in Riga. In 1887, he moved to the University of Dresden in Germany where he remained until his early retirement in 1906. He was active in many fields, including philosophy, is considered to be one of the founders of physical chemistry, and received the Nobel Prize for the discovery of chemical catalysis in 1909. Ostwald is the author of 45 textbooks and over 1000 articles. In his spare time, he was a talented painter. In 1905/1906, he spent several months in the Boston area giving courses in philosophy, physical chemistry, as well as techniques of painting at Harvard University, MIT, and the Lowell Institute, where he met Munsell and learned of the latter’s early development of the Munsell color system. After he left the University of Dresden, he moved to his nearby countryseat in Grossbothen where he spent the rest of his life primarily working on color theory and developed a large color order system and a theory of color harmony. Ostwald died on April 4, 1932 Grossbothen [1].

Major Accomplishments/Contributions

In the total field of science, Ostwald saw the place of the science of color to be in psychological science [2]. He was not only fully aware of the work of Maxwell, Grassmann, and Helmholtz but was convinced that also Hering had made important contributions toward understanding of color phenomena. His immediate predecessors had focused primarily on the relationship between lights and color experience. Ostwald made significant contributions to the understanding of object colors. His main contributions in the color field are briefly mentioned below:

Color order system: Ostwald developed a color order system that combined psychological and psychophysical knowledge, resulting in Grosser Farbenatlas of 2500 systematically ordered samples published in 1917/1918 (Fig. 1). A reduced version of 600 samples was available in 1920. An American version of the system was published in the 1940s as Color Harmony Manual [3].
Ostwald, Friedrich Wilhelm, Fig. 1

View of the double cone model of Ostwald’s color atlas

Distinction between unrelated and related colors: Helmholtz and others of his time investigated color primarily in terms of spectral light. Ostwald demonstrated and clarified the difference between unrelated and related colors, the latter experienced from viewing objects in varying surroundings. He showed that colors such as gray, brown, olive, and others exist in related form only [2].

Nonlinear relationship between wavelength differences and perceived hue differences: Ostwald demonstrated the highly nonlinear relationship when establishing the hue circle of his color atlas, showing that there are two spectral regions where perceived hues change rapidly as a function of changes in wavelength, while near the beginning, middle, and end of the spectrum, the frequency of change is much reduced [4].

Farbenhalb/Vollfarben: Ostwald demonstrated that idealized complementary object colors have reflectance in half of the spectrum in one case and the other half in the other case, with the transition wavelength varying as a function of hue. He used the term Farbenhalb (half of the spectrum) for this situation. He used a graphic format with wavelength on the horizontal and reflectance between 0 and 1 on the vertical axis. Object colors represented by Farbenhalb he named Vollfarben (full colors), object colors of the highest saturation possible for a given hue, occupying spectral ranges with either one or two transitions in the spectrum. Full colors are the optimal object colors of a given hue at the lightness level at which they have highest saturation, varying by hue. In 1920, Schrödinger offered a mathematical proof of the concept of optimal object colors that included Ostwald’s Vollfarben [4].

Metamerism: In 1918, Ostwald demonstrated the existence of metameric object colors and introduced the term metamerism [4].

Textbooks on color: During his lifetime, Ostwald published several volumes on color. The most important ones are part of a planned five-volume work Die Farbenlehre (The Science of Color), of which only two volumes were published during his lifetime: Vol. I Mathetische Farbenlehre, 1918 (ordering of color), and Vol. II Physikalische Farbenlehre, 1919 (color physics).


  1. 1.
    Ostwald, W. www.wilhelm-ostwald.de. Accessed 3 Mar 2015; 3 June 2015
  2. 2.
    Ostwald, W.: Beiträge zur Farbenlehre. Abhandlungen der Mathematisch-Physikalischen Klasse der Königlich Sächsischen Gesellschaft der Wissenschaften 23(3), 365–572 (1917)Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    Jacobson, E., Ostwald, W.: The Color Harmony Manual and How to Use It. Container Corp. of America, Chicago (1942)Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    Ostwald, W.: Die Farbenlehre. Physikalische Farben, vol. 2. Unesma, Leipzig (1918)MATHGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media New York 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.CharlotteUSA