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The Analysis of Beauty

Chapter 10: Compositions with the Waving Line

William Hogarth

1753

The very great difficulty there is in describing this line, either in words, or by the pencil — as was hinted before, when I first mentioned it — will make it necessary for me to proceed very slowly in what I have to say in this chapter, and to beg the reader's patience while I lead him step by step into the knowledge of what I think the sublime in form, so remarkably displayed in the human body; in which, I believe, when he is once acquainted with the idea of them, he will find this species of lines to be principally concerned.

First, then, let him consider figure 1, plate 18, which represents a straight horn, with its contents, and he will find, as it varies like the cone, it is a form of some beauty, merely on that account.

Next let him observe in what manner, and in what degree, the beauty of this horn is increased, in figure 2, where it is supposed to be bent two different ways.

And lastly, let him attend to the vast increase of beauty, even to grace and elegance, in the same horn, figure 3, where it is supposed to have been twisted round, at the same time, that it was bent two different ways, as in the last figure.

In the first of these figures, the dotted line down the middle expresses the straight lines of which it is composed which, without the assistance of curve lines, or light and shade, would hardly show it to have contents.

The same is true of the second, though by the bending of the horn, the straight dotted line is changed into the beautiful waving-line.

But in the last, this dotted line, by the twisting as well as the bending of the horn, is changed from the waving into the serpentine-line; which, as its dips out of sight behind the horn in the middle, and returns again at the smaller end, not only gives play to the imagination and delights the eye, on that account; but informs it likewise of the quantity and variety of the contents.

I have chosen this simple example, as the easiest way of giving a plain and general idea of the peculiar qualities of these serpentine-lines, and the advantages of bringing them into compositions, where the contents you are to express, admit of grace and elegance.

And I beg the same things may be understood of these serpentine-lines, that I have said before of the waving-lines. For as among the vast variety of waving-lines that may be conceived, there is but one that truly deserves the name of the line of beauty, so there is only one precise serpentine-line that I call the line of grace. Yet, even when they are made too bulging, or too tapering, though they certainly lose of their beauty and grace, they do not become so wholly void of these, as not to be of excellent service in compositions, where beauty and grace are not particularly designed to be expressed in their greatest perfection.

Though I have distinguished these lines so particularly as to give them the titles of the lines of beauty and grace, I mean that the use and application of them should still be confined by the principles I have laid down for composition in general: and that they should be judiciously mixed and combined with one another, and even with those I may term plain lines — ^in opposition to these — as the subject in hand requires. Thus the cornucopia, figure 4, plate 18, is twisted and bent after the same manner, as the last figure of the horn ; but more ornamented, and with a greater number of other lines of the same twisted kind, winding round it with as quick returns as those of a screw.

This sort of form may be seen with yet more variations, and therefore more beautiful, in the goat's horn, from which, in all probability, the ancients originally took the extremely elegant forms they have given their cornucopias.

There is another way of considering this last figure of the horn I would recommend to my reader, in order to give him a clearer idea of the use both of the waving and serpentine-lines in composition.

This is to imagine the horn, thus bent and twisted, to be cut length-ways by a very fine saw into two equal parts; and to observe one of these in the same position the whole horn is represented in ; and these two observations will naturally occur to him. First, that the edge of the saw must run from one end to the other of the horn in the line of beauty; so that the edges of this half of the horn will have a beautiful shape: and, secondly, that wherever the dotted serpentine-line on the surface of the whole horn dips behind, and is lost to the eye, it immediately comes into sight on the hollow surface of the divided horn.

The use I shall make of these observations will appear very considerable in the application of them to the human form, which we are next to attempt.

It will be sufficient, therefore, at present only to observe, first, that the whole horn acquires a beauty by its being thus genteelly bent two different ways; secondly, that whatever lines are drawn on its external surface become graceful, as they must all of them, from the twist that is given the horn, partake, in some degree or other, of the shape of the serpentine-line: and, lastly, when the horn is split, and the inner, as well as the outward surface of its shell-like form is exposed, the eye is peculiarly entertained and relieved in the pursuit of these serpentine-lines, as in their twistings, their concavities and convexities are alternately offered to its view. Hollow forms, therefore, composed of such lines, are extremely beautiful and pleasing to the eye; in many cases more so, than those of solid bodies.

Almost all the muscles, and bones, of which the human form is composed, have more or less of these kind of twists in them; and give, in a less degree, the same kind of appearance to the parts which cover them, and are the immediate object of the eye: and for this reason it is, that I have been so particular in describing these forms of the bent, and twisted, and ornamented horn.

There is scarce a straight bone in the whole body. Almost all of them are not only bent different ways, but have a kind of twist, which in some of them is very graceful; and the muscles annexed to them, though they are of various shapes, appropriated to their particular uses, generally have their component fibres running in these serpentine-lines, surrounding and conforming themselves to the varied shape of the bones they belong to: more especially in the limbs. Anatomists are so satisfied of this, that they take a pleasure in distinguishing their several beauties. I shall only instance in the thigh-bone, and those about the hips.

The thigh-bone, figure 1, plate 19, has the waving and twisted turn of the horn, figure 3, plate 18; but the beautiful bones adjoining, called the OvSsa innominata, figure 5, plate 18, have, with greater variety, the same turns and twists of that horn when it is cut ; and its inner and outward surfaces are exposed to the eye.

How ornamental these bones appear, when the prejudice we conceive against them, as being part of a skeleton, is taken off, by adding a little foliage to them, may be seen in figure 6, plate 18, such shell-like winding forms, mixed with foliage, twisting about them, are made use of in all ornaments; a kind of composition calculated merely to please the eye. Divest these of their serpentine twinings, and they immediately lose all grace, and return to the poor gothic taste they were in a hundred years ago, figure 3, plate 19.

Figure 2, plate 19, is meant to represent the manner, in which most of the muscles — those of the limbs in particular — are twisted round the bones, and conform themselves to their length and shape; but with no anatomical exactness. As to the running of their fibres, some anatomists have compared them to skeins of thread, loose in the middle, and tight at each end, which, when they are thus considered as twisted contrary-ways round the bone, gives the strongest idea possible of a composition of serpentine-lines.

Of these fine winding forms then are the muscles and bones of the human body composed, and which, by their varied situations with each other, become more intricately pleasing, and form a continued waving of winding forms from one into the other, as may be best seen by examining a good anatomical figure, part of which you have here represented, in the muscular leg and thigh, figure 1, plate 20, which shows the serpentine forms and varied situations of the muscles, as they appear when the skin is taken off. It was drawn from a plaster-of-paris figure cast from nature, the original of which was prepared for the mould by Cowper, the famous anatomist. In this last figure, as the skin is taken off, the parts are too distinctly traced by the eye, for that intricate delicacy which is necessary to the utmost beauty; yet the winding figures of the muscles, with the variety of their situations, must always be allowed elegant forms: however they lose in the imagination some of the beauty, which they really have by the idea of their being flayed; nevertheless, by what has already been shown both of them and the bones, the human frame has more of its parts composed of serpentine-lines than any other object in nature; which is a proof both of its superior beauty to all others, and, at the same time, that its beauty proceeds from those lines: for although they may be required sometimes to be bulging in their twists, as in the thick swelling muscles of the Hercules, yet elegance and greatness of taste is still preserved; but when these lines lose so much of their twists as to become almost straight, all elegance of taste vanishes.

Thus figure 2, plate 20, was also taken from nature, and drawn in the same position^ but treated in a more dry, stiff, and what the painters call sticky manner, than the nature of flesh is ever capable of appearing in, unless when its moisture is dried away: it must be allowed, that the parts of this figure are of as right dimensions, and as truly situated, as in the former; it wants only the true twist of the lines to give it taste.

To prove this farther, and to put the mean effect of these plain or unvaried lines in a stronger light, see figure 3, plate 20, where, by the uniform, unvaried shapes and situation of the muscles, without so much as a waving-line in them, it becomes so wooden a form, that he that can fashion the leg of a joint-stool may carve this figure as well as the best sculptor. In the same manner, divest one of the best antique statues of all its serpentine winding parts, and it becomes, from an exquisite piece of art, a figure of such ordinary lines and unvaried contents, that a common stone mason or carpenter, with the help of his rule, calipers, and compasses, might carve out an exact imitation of it: and were it not for these lines, a turner, in his lathe, might turn a much finer neck than that of the Grecian Venus; as, according to the common notion of a beautiful neck, it would be more truly round. . For the same reason, legs much swollen with disease, are as easy to imitate as a post, having lost their drawing, as the painters call it; that is, having their serpentine-lines all effaced, by the skin*s being eqtially puffed up, as figure 4, plate 19.

If in comparing these three figures one with another, the reader, notwithstanding the prejudice his imagination may have conceived against them, as anatomical figures, has been enabled only to perceive that one of them is not so disagreeable as the others, he will easily be led to see farther, that this tendency to beauty in one is not owing to any greater degree of exactness in the proportions of its parts, but merely to the more pleasing turns and intertwistings of the lines, which compose its external form; for in all the three figures the same proportions have been observed, and, on that account, they have all an equal claim to beauty.

And if he pursues this anatomical inquiry but a very little farther, just to form a true idea of the elegant use that is made of the skin and fat beneath it, to conceal from the eye all that is hard and disagreeable, and at the same time to preserve to it whatever is necessary in the shapes of the parts beneath, to give grace and beauty to the whole limb : he will find himself insensibly led into the principles of that grace and beauty which is to be found in well-turned limbs, in fine, elegant, healthy life, or in those of the best antique statues; as well as into the reason why his eye has so often unknowingly been pleased and delighted with them.

Thus, in all other parts of the body, as well as these, wherever, for the sake of the necessary motion of the parts, with proper strength and agility, the insertions of the muscles are too hard and sudden, their swellings too bold, or the hollows between them too deep, for their outlines to be beautiful ; nature most judiciously softens these hardnesses, and plumps up these vacancies with a proper supply of fat, and covers the whole with the soft, smooth, springy, and, in delicate life, almost transparent skin, which, conforming itself • to the external shape of all the parts beneath, expresses to the eye the idea of its contents with the utmost delicacy of beauty and grace.

The skin, therefore, thus tenderly embracing, and gently conforming itself to the varied shapes of every one of the outward muscles of the body, softened underneath by the fat, where, otherwise, the same hard lines and furrows would appear, as we find come on with age in the face, and with labor in the limbs, is evidently a shell-like surface — to keep up the idea I set out with — formed with the utmost delicacy in nature; and therefore the most proper subject of the study of everyone, who desires to imitate the works of nature, as a master should do, or to judge of the performances of others, as a real connoisseur ought.

I cannot be too long, I think, on this subject, as so much will be found to depend upon it; and therefore shall endeavor to give a clear idea of the different effect such anatomical figures have on the eye, from what the same parts have, when covered by the fat and skin ; by supposing a small wire that has lost its spring, and so will retain every shape it is twisted into, to be held fast to the outside of the hip, figure 1, plate 20, and thence brought down the other side of the thigh obliquely over the calf of the leg, down to the outward ankle, all the while pressed so close as to touch and conform itself to the shape of every muscle it passes over, and then to be taken off. If this wire be now examined, it will be found that the general uninterrupted flowing twist, which the winding round the limbs would otherwise have given to it, is broken into Httle better than so many separate plain curves, by the sharp indentures it everywhere has received on being closely pressed in between the muscles.

Suppose, in the next place, such a wire was in the same manner twisted round a living wellshaped leg' and thigh, or those of a fine statue; when you take it off, you will find no such sharp indentures, nor any of those regular engradings, as the heralds express it, which displeased the eye before. On the contrary, you will see how gradually the changes in its shape are produced; how imperceptibly the different curvatures run into each other, and how easily the eye glides along the varied wavings of its sweep. To enforce this still further, if a line were to be drawn by a pencil exactly where these wires have been supposed to pass, the point of the pencil, in the muscular leg and thigh, would i)erpetually meet with stops and rubs, while in the others it would flow from muscle to muscle along the elastic sldn, as pleasantly as the lightest sldff dances over the gentlest wave.

This idea of the wire, retaining thus the shape of the parts it passes over, seems of so much consequence, that I would by no means have it forgot; as it may properly be considered as one of the threads, or outUnes of the shell, or external surface, of the human form: and the frequently recurring to it will assist the imagination in its conceptions of those parts of it, whose shapes are most intricately varied: for the same sort of observations may be made, with equal justice, on the shapes of ever so many such wires twisted in the same manner in ever so many directions over every part of a well-made man, woman, or statue.

And if the reader will follow in his imagination the most exquisite turns of the chisel in the hands of a master, when he is putting the finishing touches to a statue; he will soon be led to understand what it is the real judges expect from the hand of such a master, which the Italians call, the little more, // poco piu, and which in reality distinguishes the original masterpieces at Rome from even the best copies of them.

An example or two will sufficiently explain what is here meant; for as these exquisite turns are to be found, in some degree of beauty or other, all over the whole surface of the body and limbs: we may, by taking any one part of a fine figure, though so small a one that only a few muscles are expressed in it, explain the manner in which so much beauty and grace has been given to them, as to convince a skilful artist, almost at sight, that it must have been the work of ^ master.

I have chosen, for this purpose, a small piece of the body of a statue, figure 1, plate 21, representing part of the left side under the arm, together with a little of the breast, — ^including a very particular muscle, which, from the likeness its edges bear to the teeth of a saw, is, if considered by itself, void of beauty — as most proper to the point in hand, because this its regular shape more peculiarly requires the skill of the artist to give it a little more variety than it generally has, even in nature.

First, then, I will give you a representation of this part of the body, from an anatomical figure, figure 2, plate 21, to show what a sameness there is in the shapes of all the teeth-like insertions of this muscle; and how regularly the fibres, which compose it, follow the almost parallel outlines of the ribs they partly cover.

From what has been said before of the use of the natural covering of the skin, etc. the next figure, figure 3, plate 21, will easily be understood to mean so tame a representation of the same part of the body, that though the hard and stiff appearance of the edges of this muscle is taken off by that covering, yet enough of its regularity and sameness remains to render it disagreeable.

Now as regularity and sameness, according to our doctrine, is want of elegance and true taste, we shall endeavor in the next place to show how this very parjt, in which the muscles take so very regular a form, may be brought to have as much variety as any other part of the body whatever. In order to do this, though some alteration must be made in almost every part of it, yet it should be so inconsiderable in each, that no remarkable change may appear in the shape and situation of any.

Thus, let the parts marked a, b, c, d, which appear so exactly similar in shape, and parallel in situation, in the muscular figure 2, and not much mended in figure 3, be first varied in their sizes, but not gradually from the uppermost to the lowest, as in figure 4, nor alternately one long and one short, as in figure 5, for in either of these cases there would still remain too great a formality. We should therefore endeavor, in the next place, to vary them every way in our power, without losing entirely the true idea of the parts themselves. Suppose them then to have changed their situations a little, and slipped beside each other irregularly, somehow as is represented in figure 6, merely with regard to their situation, and the external appearance of the whole piece of the body, now under our consideration, will assume the more varied and pleasing form represented in figure 1, easily to be discerned by comparing the three figures, 1, 2, 3, one with another; and it will as easily be seen, that were lines to be drawn, or wires to be bent, over these muscles, from one to the other, and so on to the adjoining parts; they would have a continued waving flow, let them pass in any direction whatever.

The unskilful, in drawing these parts after the life, as their regularities are much more easily seen and copied than their fine variations, seldom fail of making them more regular and poor than they really appear even in a consumptive person.

The difference will appear evident by comparing figure 3, purposely drawn in this tasteless manner, with figure 1. But will be more perfectly understood by examining this part in the Torso of Michael Angelo, figure 1, plate 6, whence this figure was taken.

Note, there are casts of a small copy of that famous trunk of a body to be had at almost every plaster figure maker's, wherein what has been here described may be sufficiently seen, not only in the part which figure 1 was taken from, but all over that curious piece of antiquity.

I must here again press my reader to a particular attention to the windings of these superficial lines, even in their passing over every joint, whatsoever alterations may be made in the surface of the skin by the various bendings of the limbs: and though the space allowed for it, just in the joints, be ever so small, and consequently the lines ever so short, the application of this principle of varying these lines, as far as their lengths will admit of, will be found to have its effect as gracefully as in the more lengthened muscles of the body.

It should be observed in the fingers, where the joints are but short, and the tendons straight; and where beauty seems to submit, in some degree, to use, yet not so much but you trace in a full grown taper finger, these little winding lines among the wrinkles, or in what is more pretty because more simple, the dimples of the knuckles. As we always distinguish things best by seeing their reverse set in opposition with them; if figure 5, plate 19, by the straightness of its lines, shows figure 6, plate 19, to have some little taste in it, though it is so slightly sketched; the difference will more evidently appear when you in like manner compare a straight coarse finger in common life with the taper dimpled one of a fine lady.

There is an elegant degree of plumpness peculiar to the skin of the softer sex, that occasions these delicate dimplings in all their other joints, as well as these of the fingers; which so perfectly distinguishes them from those even of a graceful man; and which, assisted by the more softened shapes of the muscles underneath, presents to the eye all the varieties in the whole figure of the body, with gentler and fewer parts more sweetly connected together, and with such a fine simplicity as will always give the turn of the female frame, represented in the Venus, figure 1, plate 7, the preference to that of the Apollo, plate 22.

Now whoever can conceive lines thus constantly flowing, and delicately varying over every part of the body even to the fingers* ends, and will call to his remembrance what led us to this last description of what the Italians call, // poco piu, the little more that is expected from the hand of a master, will, in my mind, want very little more than what his own observation on the works of art and nature will lead him to, to acquire a true idea of the word taste, when applied to form ; however inexplicable this word may hitherto have been imagined.

We have all along had recourse chiefly to the works of the ancients, not because the modems have not pf oduced some as excellent ; but because the works of the former are more generally known : nor would we have it thought, that either of them have ever yet come up to the utmost beauty of nature. Who but a bigot, even to the antiques, will say that he has not seen faces and necks, hands and arms in living women, that even the Grecian Venus does but coarsely imitate?

And what sufficient reason can be given why the same may not be said of the rest of the body?

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