The Analysis of Beauty

Chapter 5: Intricacy

William Hogarth


The active mind is ever bent to be employed. Pursuing is the business of our lives; and even abstracted from any other view, gives pleasure. Every arising difficulty, that for a while attends and interrupts the pursuit, gives a sort of spring to the mind, enhances the pleasure, and makes what would else be toil and labor become sport and recreation.

Wherein would consist the joys of hunting, shooting, fishing, and many other favorite diversions, without the frequent turns and difficulties, and disappointments, that are daily met with in the pursuit? How joyless does the sportsman return when the hare has not had fair play! how lively, and in spirits, even when an old cunning one has baffled, and out-run the dogs! '- This love of pursuit, merely as pursuit, is implanted in our natures, and designed, no doubt, for necessary and useful purposes. Animals have it evidently by instinct. The hound dislikes the game he so eagerly pursues; and even cats will risk the losing of their prey to chase it over again. It is a pleasing labor of the mind to solve the most difficult problems; allegories and riddles, trifling as they are, afford the mind amusement: and with what delight does it follow the well-connected thread of a play, or novel, which ever increases as the plot thickens, and ends most pleased, when that is most distinctly unravelled!

The eye has this sort of enjoyment in winding walks, and serpentine rivers, and all sorts of objects, whose forms, as we shall see hereafter, are composed principally of what, I call, the waving and serpentine lines.

Intricacy in form, therefore, I shall define to be that peculiarity in the lines, which compose it, that leads the eye a wanton kind of chase, and from the pleasure that gives the mind, entitles it to the name of beautiful: and it may be justly said, that the cause of the idea of grace more immediately resides in this principle, than in the other five, except variety; which indeed includes this, and all the others.

That this observation may appear to have a real foundation in nature, every help will be required, which the reader himself can call to his assistance, as well as what will here be suggested to him.

To set this matter in a somewhat clearer light, the familiar instance of a common jack, with a circular fly, may serve our purpose better than a more elegant form: preparatory to which, let figure 5, plate 8, be considered, which represents the eye, at a common reading distance viewing a row of letters, but fixed with most attention to the middle letter A.

Now as we read, a ray may be supposed to be drawn from the centre of the eye to that letter it looks at first, and to move successively with it from letter to letter, the whole length of the line: but if the eye stops at any particular letter A, to observe it more than the rest, these other letters will grow more and more imperfect to the sight, the farther they are situated on either side of A, as is expressed in the figure: and when we endeavor to see all the letters in a line equally perfect at one view, as it were, this imaginary ray must course it to and fro with great celerity. Thus though the eye, strictly speaking, can only pay due attention to these letters in succession, yet the amazing ease and swiftness, with which it performs this task, enables us to see considerable spaces with sufficient satisfaction at one sudden view.

Hence, we shall always suppose some such principal ray moving along with the eye, and tracing out the parts of every form, we mean to examine, in the most perfect manner: and when we would follow with exactness the course any body takes, that is in motion, this ray is always to be supposed to move with the body.

In this manner of attending to forms, they will be found, whether at rest or in motion, to give movement to this imaginary ray; or, more properly speaking, to the eye itself, affecting it thereby more or less pleasingly, according to their different shapes and motions. Thus, for example, in the instance of the jack, whether the eye, with this imaginary ray, moves slowly down the line, to which the weight is fixed, or attends to the slow motion of the weight itself, the mind is equally fatigued: and whether it .swiftly courses round the circular rim of the flyer, when the jack stands; or nimbly follows one point in its circularity while it is whirling about, we are almost equally made giddy by it. But our sensation differs much from either of these unpleasant ones, when we observe the curling worm, into which the worm-wheel is fixed, figure 6, plate 8, for this is always pleasing, either at rest or in motion, and whether that motion is slow or quick.

That it is accounted so, when it is at rest, appears by the ribbon, twisted round a stick, represented on one side of this figure, which has been a long established ornament in the carvings of frames, chimney-pieces, and door cases; and called by the carvers, the stick and ribbon ornament; and when the stick through the middle is omitted, it is called the ribbon edge: both to be seen in almost every house of fashion.

But the pleasure it gives the eye is still more lively when in motion. I never can forget my frequent strong attention to it, when I was very young, and that its beguiling movement gave me the same kind of sensation then, which I since have felt at, seeing a country-dance; though perhaps the latter might be somewhat more engaging; particularly when my eye eagerly pursued a favorite dancer, through all the windings of the figure, who then was bewitching to the sight, as the imaginary ray, we were speaking of, was dancing with her all the time.

This single example might be sufficient to explain what I mean by the beauty of a composed intricacy of form: and how it may be said, with propriety to lead the eye a kind of chase.

But the hair of the head is another very obvious instance, which, being designed chiefly as an ornament, proves more or less so, according to the form it naturally takes, or is put into by art. The most amiable in itself is the flowing curl ; and the many waving and contrasted turns of naturally intermingling locks ravish the eye with the pleasure of the pursuit, especially when they are put in motion by a gentle breeze. The poet knows it, as well as the painter, and has described the wanton ringlets waving in the wind.

And yet to show how excess ought to be avoided in intricacy, as well as in every other principle, the very same head of hair, wisped, and matted together, would make the most disagreeable figure; because the eye would be perplexed, and at a fault, and unable to trace such a confused number of uncomposed and entangled lines; and yet, not- withstanding this, the present fashion the ladies have gone into, of wearing a part of the hair of their heads braided together from behind, like inter-twisted serpents, arising thickest from the bottom, lessening as it is brought forward, and naturally conforming to the shape of the rest of the hair it is pinned over, is extremely picturesque. Their thus interlacing the hair in distinct varied quantities is an artful way of preserving as much of intricacy as is beautiful.

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SymmetryArt Theory