Encyclopedia of Color Science and Technology

Living Edition
| Editors: Ronnier Luo

Runge, Philipp Otto

  • Rolf Kuehni
Living reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-642-27851-8_309-1


Equilateral Triangle Parental Home Romantic Period Primary Color Cargo Ship 
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P. O. Runge, Self-portrait, ca. 1804


Runge was born on July 23, 1777, the 9th of 11 children of a tradesman and cargo ship owner and his wife in Wolgast, Pomerania, on the Baltic Sea, then under Swedish rule. As a child he was frequently ill with tuberculosis, being often educated at home. In 1795 he began a commercial apprenticeship at his older brother Daniel’s firm in Hamburg. In 1799 Daniel supported Otto financially to begin the study of painting at the Copenhagen Academy. In 1801 Otto moved to Dresden to continue his studies, where among others he met his future wife Pauline Bassenge and the painter Caspar David Friedrich. He also began to study extensively the writings of the seventeenth-century mystic Jakob Boehme. In 1803, on a visit to Weimar, Runge unexpectedly met Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, and the two formed a friendship based on their common interests in color and art. After marrying Pauline in 1804, they moved to Hamburg. But due to imminent war dangers (Napoleonic siege of Hamburg), they relocated in 1805 to his parental home in Wolgast where they remained until 1807, then returned to Hamburg. Together they had four children, the last born on the day after Runge’s premature death in 1810. In March of 1810 Runge became ill with tuberculosis again to which he succumbed on December 2 of the year. Runge was of a mystical, deeply Christian turn of mind, and in his artistic work he tried to express notions of the harmony of the universe through symbolism of color, form, and numbers. He considered blue, yellow, and red to be symbolic of the Christian trinity, equating blue with God and the night; red with morning, evening, and Jesus; and yellow with the Holy Spirit (Runge 1841, I, p. 17 [1]). During his short life he became one of the most important German painters of the Romantic period.

Major Accomplishments/Contributions

Runge’s interest in color was the natural result of his work as a painter and of having an enquiring mind. Among his accepted tenets was that “as is known, there are only three colors, yellow, red, and blue.” (letter to Goethe of July 3, 1806) [2]. His goal was to establish the complete range of colors resulting from mixture of the three primaries, among themselves and together with white and black. In the same lengthy letter, Runge discussed in some detail his views on color order and included a sketch of a mixture circle, with the three primary colors forming an equilateral triangle and, together with their pair-wise mixtures, a hexagon. He arrived at the concept of the color sphere sometime in 1807, as indicated in his letter to Goethe of November 21 of that year, by expanding the hue circle into a sphere, with white and black forming the two poles [3]. A color mixture solid of a double-triangular pyramid had been proposed by Tobias Mayer in 1758 and implemented in form of a triangular pyramid by J. H. Lambert, facts known to Runge. His expansion of that solid into a sphere appears to have had an idealistic basis rather than one of logical necessity. In 1808 he hoped to provide scientific support for the sphere form with disk color mixture experiments. Encouraged by Goethe and other friends, he wrote in 1808 a manuscript describing the color sphere, published in Hamburg early in 1810 as Farben-Kugel (Color sphere) by his friend Friederich Perthes [4]. An included hand-colored plate shows two different views of the surface of the sphere as well as horizontal and vertical slices demonstrating the organization of its interior (Fig. 1).
Fig. 1

Hand-illuminated illustration from P. O. Runge, Farben-Kugel, Ref. [4]. Top: Image of sphere top down (top left) and bottom up (top right). Horizontal cross section through middle of the sphere (bottom left) and vertical cross section (bottom right)

In addition to a description of the color sphere, it contains an illustrated essay on rules of color harmony by Runge and one on color in nature written by Runge’s friend Henrik Steffens. Runge’s premature death limited the impact of this work. Goethe, who had read the manuscript before publication, mentioned it optimistically in his Materialien zur Geschichte der Farbenlehre of 1810 as “successfully concluding this kind of effort” [5]. More detailed similar systems were published soon thereafter by Gaspard Grégoire in France and by Mathias Klotz in Germany [6, 7].


  1. 1.
    Runge, P.O.: Hinterlassene Schriften, 2 vols. Hamburg, Perthes 1840/41Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    Letter by Runge to J. W. von Goethe dated July 3, 1806, in Maltzahn, H.: Philipp Otto Runge’s Briefwechsel mit Goethe, Weimar: Verlag der Goethe-Gesellschaft This letter was included as an appendix in Goethe’s Farbenlehre of 1810 (1940)Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    Letter by Runge to J. W. von Goethe dated Nov. 21, 1807, in Maltzahn, H., op. citGoogle Scholar
  4. 4.
    Runge, P.O.: Die Farben-Kugel, oder Construction des Verhaeltnisses aller Farben zueinander, Perthes, Hamburg (1810) (English text translation available on the website www.iscc.org)
  5. 5.
    Goethe, J.W.: Materialien zur Geschichte der Farbenlehre. Cotta, Tübingen (1810). Entry on J. H. LambertGoogle Scholar
  6. 6.
    Grégoire, G.: Théorie des couleurs, contenant explication de la table des couleurs. Brunot-Labbe, Paris (1815)Google Scholar
  7. 7.
    Klotz, M.: Gründliche Farbenlehre. Lindauer, München (1816)Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media New York 2014

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.CharlotteUSA