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colours, or colours under certain circumstances, are charming and attractive. What, then, is meant by this? or how can a sensation be beautiful ? The answer to this question is, that mere colour—colour per se—is never looked upon as beautiful, but that when that epithet is applied to colour, the object in which the latter is seen to inhere, its shape, motion, &c., are included in the cause of our admiration. Colour is a sensation, therefore mere colour-colour as colour-may be good, rare, pleasant, attractive, but never beautiful ; it can only be felt to be pleasant, just as a taste or an odour is felt to be pleasant. There is much difficulty in making out this pleasure, but not much more perhaps than the pleasure of hearing or the agreeableness of certain emotions. On the mere ground of analogy alone, however, there is the strongest evidence for believing that the sensation of colour is pleasant or unpleasant. It would indeed be strange if the rule observed in all the other senses—that there should be pleasant and unpleasant sensations attaching to eachwere found wanting in colour; if, that is to say, we should be capable of pleasant and unpleasant states of temperature, pleasant and unpleasant flavours, odours, and sounds, but not pleasant or unpleasant colours, but only indifferent ones—sensations which are neither attractive nor unattractive. When we come to compare the senses together and see the gradation which obtains in their power and mode of affecting the mind; when we find that they have a regular order of progression, those which are strongest as instruments of feeling being weakest as means of information, and those which afford the largest amount of knowledge being least potent as ministers of sensation, we are in a position to expect that hearing and sight, which close the latter class, should swallow up their sensible feelings in the intelligence they communicate; we should also be prepared to find, what is actually the case, that fewer persons have had the hardihood to question the pleasantness and unpleasantness of sound per se than the pleasantness or unpleasantness of colour per se. The inverseratio principle is the key to the phenomenon to be accounted for, and this demurring or denying which we meet with is, in fact, a confirmation of the perfect gradation of the senses. Mere colour, therefore, being a sensation, cannot with propriety be called beautiful; and when it is so called, what is meant is either that the colour is a pleasant one to look at, i.e., to feel, or else that the object to which the colour attaches is a beautiful object. We have no more right to speak of a beautiful colour per se than of a beautiful flavour per se. Colour, however, is so spoken of, and we ought to have some explanation of the phrase. Let us test the explanation proposed.
Scarlet is often spoken of as a beautiful colour, no doubt because it is organically pleasant to the eye— because the hue is attractive to behold; but if we mean more than this, we include more than colour. If we mean more than that the mere scarlet of the petals is a pleasant feeling, in calling it beautiful, we take into consideration the size, shape, and structure of the petals or the flower, and all that these suggest. This it is that really calls up our admiration. The difficulty of satisfactorily sifting the sensation from the emotion in every recognition of the beautiful is doubtless great. Nevertheless it must be done, and accurately too, since beauty refers to the emotion in the susceptibility, and not to the sensation in the sensibility. Mere colour as sensation must, like every other sensation-odours, flavours, sounds, &c.—be discerned as pleasant or unpleasant, attractive or repulsive, and it has no peculiar claim to the epithet beautiful.
Very seldom, never perhaps, do we look at pure bright colours without associating a multitude of things with the objects to which we find them attached; and straightway our emotion rises up and drives the sensation from the mind. It is difficult not to associate a variety of things with the rainbow, for its colours, shape, position, size, and arrangement are calculated to awaken various reflections in the mind; this being so, attention to mere sensation is out of the question. To experiment on colour as a sensation, we require a large shapeless mass of a uniform hue, which, however choice and pleasant the shade might be to the eye, could not without incongruity be styled “ beautiful.” We might, however, throw some bright colours or a large piece of a brilliant spectrum on a white screen in a dark room, and come near to testing our sensation of colour. Few audiences have witnessed this experiment without being ready to exclaim at the effect.
But bring in a country clown and he will give a shout and perhaps a jump at the spectacle; to him it will seem extremely gorgeous and striking, much more so than to a cultivated audience. Now, how is this? The boor is less educated than the others; he is fresh from the country, having seen little else than the green fields, the blue sky, and the white clouds; he has not had the same means of forming associations with the colours of the spectrum as his cultured brethren who are evidently less affected by the sight; his intellect is much thicker and slower than those of his scientific companions, and yet he is longer and more visibly impressed by the scene; while they are passive spectators he is a delighted beholder.
How otherwise can this be, except that the sensation in the peasant's case being the highest and the emotion the lowest of its kind, the sensation asserts itself in the man's behaviour, filling him with an appetital desire towards the colours he feels. The figure and size of a spectrum (supposing it to be a rectangle or a square) are not calculated to beget many associations or suggest many resemblances, yet the colours being most pure and brilliant are held by all to be “very beautiful, very lovely.” The only explanation is that intelligence, and therefore emotion, being under such circumstances at zero and sensation at the maximum, we feel the pleasure of the colour per se more acutely than under other circumstances. Let a single bright colour be thrown on the screen, and it also will be praised as good, fine, lovely, &c., but the epithet “ beautiful” would sound a little incongruous, since a large patch of uniform coloured light cannot be suggestive of much, cannot be nearly so suggestive as when coupled with an object which has definite shape and motion, and with which we associate design and a variety of purposes. If colour as a sensation were merely indifferent, and only attractive by association, children and clowns would be more insensible to bright colours than the old or the educated, because having a smaller experience to draw upon they have fewer materials for association. That the truth lies the other way, however, will need little argument to prove, for it is notorious how young persons and peasants are attracted by bright colours—by red flags, blue feathers, scarlet cloths, glittering insects, &c.—and how in the fulness of their gratification they commonly utter exclamations; and it is no less notorious how that cultivated understandings, especially those of a poetic and artistic turn, look at such things in a staid and thoughtful manner, deriving satisfaction, not from the colour as a feeling, but from what the coloured object suggests—in other words, being least subject to the sensations imparted and most alive to the emotions called up by the intellect.
Scarlet appears to be a particularly grateful and attractive colour, probably on account of its calorific effect upon the retina. A soldier in a scarlet coat, while walking along the street, is looked at by perhaps ten times as many persons as is a man in grey or brown or black. It would probably occur to many that scarlet is a stronger colour than black; that we see it more easily and at a greater distance; that, in fact, it causes a more pungent feeling in the mind. This, however, can hardly be the case; it by no means follows that because we like a sensation it is therefore stronger than one we do not like. It by no means follows that because children like sugar more than salt they therefore receive a stronger sensation from it. In fact, all our unpleasant sensations are more pungent, or at least capable of greater intensity, than our pleasant ones, and that colour is no exception to this rule can, I apprehend, be proved by experiment. If a bright scarlet shawl and a black one were shown to a child before it had any associations with any particular colour and its opinion asked upon them, it would, I think, pronounce in favour of the scarlet; a fact which can only be explained by the difference in the sensations, scarlet being pleasanter than black. And if in after-life the child should come to look upon a black object as more beautiful than a scarlet one, which is not impossible, the cause should be sought for elsewhere than in the sensation created by the colour, That a pleasant colour, such as scarlet, is not necessarily felt more than an unpleasant one, such as black, may be demonstrated thus : let a man in scarlet clothes and a man in black walk away from us in the dusk, and the man in scarlet will disappear before the man in black. This fact has been proved over and over again, and may be shown in a variety of ways. Were it otherwise, were scarlet more visible than black, it would certainly be extremely foolish to clothe the army in a colour which would assist the enemy in discerning their mark. When we see a scarlet coat we fasten and feast our eyes upon it, but we could not discern it nearly so well as a black, a yellow, or a white one under similar circumstances.
It is certain also that bright colours not only pall upon us, but become positively painful if we get much of them. Those who have to do with colours professionally or otherwise, ladies for example who work in coloured wools, know to their cost what painful sensations bright colours are capable of causing. So it is also with flavours; for what child continues when grown up to like sugar as much as when it first tasted it? But as there are some flavours of a medium kind, as those of tea, bread, meat, &c., which never pall upon us though partaken of every day, so there are some colours of a moderate intensity, as those of sky-blue and grass-green, which are never un