Werner’s Nomenclature of Colours

A page of blues in Werner’ Nomenclature of Colours, first published in 1814 and just released in a new facsimile edition. Courtesy Smithsonian Books. During the latter part of the year 1834, the HMS Beagle was nosing down the coast of South America. On board, a young gentleman geologist was busy collecting data would, on his return to England two years later, give birth to the theory of evolution. For the , however, Charles Darwin was young, unknown, and almost overwhelmed by the teeming array of life all around him. On December 6 he saw a sea slug that was largely “crimson red,” with a “lilac with lead color” belly and finer, rose-colored mouth parts. A few days earlier he noted—as ever, too feverish to heed punctuation or grammar—a frog with “Throat & breast & [cheeks] rich chestnut brown with snow white marks thighs blackish.” These scribbled descriptions hint at two intractable challenges that Darwin faced, both relating to color. The first: Any samples he brought home would be bleached bare of the subtle hues they had in life by his crude preserving agents. The second, wider problem: Color vocabulary—then, as now—is anything but universal. “An object,” Patrick […]

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