The Analysis of Beauty

Chapter 17: Action

William Hogarth


To the amazing variety of forms made still infinitely more various in appearance by light, shade, and color, nature has added another way of increasing that variety, still more to enhance the value of all her compositions. This is accomplished by means of action; the fullest display of which is put into the power of the human species, and which is equally subject to the same principles with regard to the effects of beauty, or the reverse, as govern all the former compositions; as is partly seen in chapter XI on proportion. My business here shall be, in as concise a manner as possible, to particularize the application of these principles to the movement of the body and therewith finish this system of variety in forms and actions.

There is no one but would wish to have it in his power to be genteel and graceful in the carriage of his person, could it be attained with little trouble and expense of time. The usual methods relied on for this purpose among well-bred people, takes up a considerable part of their time: even those of the first rank have no other resource in these matters, than to dancing-masters, and fencingmasters: dancing and fencing are undoubtedly proper, and very necessary accomplishments; yet are they frequently very imperfect in bringing about the business of graceful deportment. For although the muscles of the body may attain a pliancy by these exercises, and the limbs, by the elegant movement in dancing, acquire a facility in moving gracefully, yet, for want of knowmg the meaning of every grace, and whereon it depends, affectations and misapplications often follow.

Action is a sort of language which perhaps, one time or other, may come to be taught by a kind of grammar rules; but, at present, is only got by rote and imitation: and, contrary to most other copyings or imitations, people of rank and fortune generally excel their originals, the dancing-masters, in easy behavior and unaffected grace ; as a sense of superiority makes them act without constraint ; especially when their persons are well turned. If so, what can be more conducive to that freedom and necessary courage which make acquired grace seem easy and natural, than the being able to demonstrate when we are actually just and proper in the least movement we perform; whereas, for want of such certainty in the mind, if one of the most finished gentlemen at court were to appear as an actor on the public stage, he would find himself at a loss how to move projfcerly, and be stiff, narrow, and awkward, in representing even his own character: the uncertainty of being right would naturally give him some of that restraint which the uneducated common people generally have when they appear before their betters. It is known that bodies in motion always describe some line or other in the air, as the whirling round of a fire-brand apparently makes a circle, the waterfall part of a curve, the arrow and bullet, by the swiftness of their motions, nearly a straight line ; waving lines are formed by the pleasing movement of a ship on the waves. Now in order to obtain a just idea of action, at the same time to be judiciously satisfied of being in the right in what we do, let us begin with imagining a line formed in the air by any supposed point at the end of a limb or part that is moved, or made by the whole part, or limb ; or by the whole body together. And that thus much of movements may be conceived at once is evident, on the least recollection, for whoever has seen a fine Arabian war horse, unbacked and at liberty, and in a wanton trot, cannot but remember what 9, large waving line his rising, and at the same time pressing forward, cuts through the air; the equal continuation of which, is varied by his curveting from side to side ; while his long mane and tail play about in serpentine movements.

After thus having formed the idea of all movements being as lines, it will not be difficult to conceive, that grace in action depends upon the same principles as have been shown to produce it in forms.

The next thing that offers itself to our consideration is the force of habit and custom in action ; for a great deal depends thereon.

The peculiar movements of each person, as the gait in walking, are particularized in such lines as each part describes by the habits they have contracted. The nature and power of habit may be fully conceived by the following familiar instance, as the motions of one part of the body may serve to explain those of the whole.

Observe that whatever habit the fingers get in the use of the pen, you see exactly delineated to the eye by the shapes of the letters. Were the movements of every writer's fingers to be precisely the same, one hand- writing would not be known from another, but as the fingers naturally fall into, or acquire different habits of moving, every handwriting is visibly different. Which movements must tally with the letters, though they are too quick and too small to be as perfectly traced by the eye ; but this shows what nice differences are caused, and constantly retained, by habitual movements.

It may be remarked, that all useful habitual motions, such as are readiest to serve the necessary purposes of life, are those made up of plain lines, i. e. straight and circular lines, which most animals have in common with mankind, though not in so extensive a degree: the monkey from his make has it sufficiently in his power to be graceful, but as reason is required for this purpose, it would be impossible to bring him to move genteelly.

Though I have said that the ordinary actions of the body are performed in plain lines, I mean only comparatively so with those of studied movements in the serpentine-line, for as all our muscles are ever ready to act, when one part is moved, as a hand, or arm, by its proper movers, for raising up or drawing down, the adjacent muscles act in some degree in correspondence with them : therefore our most common movements are but seldom performed in such absolutely mean lines, as those of jointed dolls and puppets. A man must have a good deal of practice to be able to mimic such very straight or round motions, which being incompatible with the human form, are therefore ridiculous. Let it* be observed that graceful movements in serpentine-lines, are used but occasionally, and rather at times of leisure, than constantly applied to every action we make. The whole business of life may be carried on without them, they being, properly speaking, only the ornamental part of gesture; and therefore not being naturally familiarized by necessity, must be acquired by precept or imitation, and reduced to habit by frequent repetitions. Precept is the means I should recommend as the most expeditious and effectual way. But before we proceed to the method I have to propose, for the more ready and sure way of accustoming the limbs to a facility in the ornamental way of moving; I should observe, that quick time gives it spirit and vivacity, as slow time, gravity and solemnity; and further, that the latter of these allows the eye an opportunity of seeing the line of grace to advantage, as in the address of heroes on the stage, or in any solemn act of ceremony; and that although time in movement is reduced to certain rules for dancing, it is left more at large and at discretion for deportment.

We come now to offer an odd, but perhaps efficacious method of acquiring a habit of mo\dng in the lines of grace and beauty.

Let any one chalk the line shown in figure 3, plate 31, on a flat surface, beginning at either end, and he will move his hand and arm in a beautiful direction, but if he chalks the same sort of line on an ogee-moulding of a foot or two in breadth, as the dotted line on figure 4, plate 31, his hand must move in that more beautiful direction, which is distinguished by the name of grace ; and according to the quantity given to those lines, greatness will be added to grace, and the movement will be more or less noble.

Gentle movements of this sort thus understood, may be made at any time and anywhere, which, by frequent repetitions, will become so familiar to the parts so exercised, that on proper occasion they make them as it were of their own accord.

The pleasing effect of this manner of moving the hand, is seen when a fan is presented gracefully or genteelly to a lady, both in the hand moving forward and in its return; but care must be taken that the line of movement be but gentle, as No. 3, figure 1, plate 16, and not too S-like and twirling, as No. 7 in the same figure : which excess would be affected and ridiculous.

Daily practising these movements with the hands and arms, as also with such other parts of the body as are capable of them, will in a short time render the whole person graceful and easy at pleasure.

As to the motions of the head ; the awe most children are in before strangers, till they come to a certain age, is the cause of their dropping and drawing their chins down into their breasts, and looking imder their foreheads, as if conscious of their weakness, or of something wrong about them. To prevent this awkward shyness, parents and tutors are continually teasing them to hold up their heads, which if they get them to do, it is with difficulty, and of course in so constrained a manner that it gives the children pain, so that they naturally take all opportunities of easing themselves by holding down their heads ; which posture would be full as imeasy to them, were it not a relief from restraint : and there is another misfortune in holding down the head, that it is apt to make them bend too much in the back; when this happens to be the case, they then have recourse to steelcollars, and other iron machines; all which shacklings are repugnant to nature, and may make the body grow crooked. This daily fatigue both to the children and the parents may be avoided, and an ugly habit prevented, at a proper age, by fastening a ribbon to a quantity of platted hair, or to the cap, so as it may be kept fast in its place, and the other end to the back of the coat, as figure 5, plate 31, of such a length as may prevent them drawing their chins into their necks ; which ribbon will always leave the head at liberty to move in any direction but this awkward one they are so apt to fall into.

But till children arrive at a reasoning age, it will be difficult by any means to teach them more grace than what is natural to every well made child at liberty.

The grace of the upper parts of the body is most engaging, and sensible well made people in any station naturally have it in a great degree; therefore rules, unless they are simple and easily retained and practised, are of little use; but, rather are of disservice.

Holding the head erect is but occasionally right, a proper recline of it may be as graceful ; but true elegance is mostly seen in the moving it from one position to another.

And this may be attained by a sensibility within yourself, though you have not a sight of what you do by looking in the glass, when with your head assisted by a sway of the body in order to give it more scope, you endeavor to make that very serpentine-line in the air, which the hands have been before taught to do by the help of the ogee-moulding: and I will venture to say, a few careful repetitions at first setting out will make this movement as easy to the head as to the hands and arms.

The most graceful bow is got by the head's moving in this direction, as it goes downward and rises up again. Some awkward imitators of this elegant way of bowing, for want of knowing what they were about, have seemed to bow with wry necks. The low solemn bow to majesty should have but a very little twist, if any, as more becoming gravity and submission. The clownish nod in a sudden straight line is quite the reverse of these spoken of.

The most elegant and respectful courtesy has a gentle, or small degree of the above graceful bowing of the head as the person sinks, and rises, and retreats. If it should be said, that a fine courtesy consists in no more than in being erect in person at the time of sinking and rising; Madam Catherine in clock-work, or the dancing bears led about the streets for a show, must be allowed to make as good a courtesy as anybody.

It is necessary in bowing and courtesying to shun an exact sameness at all times; for however graceful it may be on some occasions, at other times it may seem formal and improper. Shakesspeare seems to have meant the above spoken of ornamental manner of bowing, in Enobarbus's description of Cleopatra's waiting women — And made their bends adomings — Act 2.

Of Dancing. The minuet is allowed by the dancing-masters themselves to be the perfection of all dancing. I once heard an eminent dancing master say, that the minuet had been the study of his whole life, and that he had been indefatigable in the pursuit of its beauties, yet at last he could only say with Socrates, he knew nothing: adding, that I was happy in my profession as a painter, in that some bounds might be set to the study of it. No doubt, as the minuet contains in it a composed variety of as many movements in the serpentine-lines as can well be put together in distinct quantities, it is a fine composition of movements.

The ordinary undulating motion of the body in common walking — as may be plainly seen by the waving line, which the shadow a man's head makes against a wall as he is walking between it and the afternoon sun — is augmented in dancing into a larger quantity of waving by means of the minuetstep, which is so contrived as to raise the body by gentle degrees somewhat higher than ordinary, and sink it again in the same manner lower in the going on of the danc^. The figure of the minuetpath on the floor is also composed of serpentine lines, as figure 2, plate 30, varying a little with the fashion: when the parties, by means of this step, rise and fall most smoothly in time, and free from sudden starting and dropping they come nearest to Shakespeare's idea of the beauty of dancing, in the following lines:

What you do,
Still betters what is done,
When you do dance, I wish you
A wave o' th' sea, that you might ever do
Nothing but that; move still, still so,
And own no other function.

— Winter's Tale.

The other beauties belonging to this dance, are the turns of the head, and twist of the body in passing each other, as also gentle bowing and presenting hands in the manner before described, all which together displays the greatest variety of movements in serpentine lines imaginable, keeping equal pace with musical time.

There are other dances that entertain merely because they are composed of variety of movements, and performed in proper time, but the less they consist of serpentine or waving lines, the lower they are in the estimation of dancing-masters : for, as has been shown, when the form of the body is divested of its serpentine lines, it becomes ridiculous as a human figure; so likewise, when all movements in such lines are excluded in a dance, it becomes low, grotesque, and comical; but however, being, as was said, composed of variety, made consistent with some character, and executed with agility, it nevertheless is very entertaining. Such are Italian peasant dances, etc. But such uncouth contortions of the body as are allowable in a man would disgust in a woman; as the extremely graceful, so very alluring in this sex, is nauseous in the other ; even the minuet-grace in a man would hardly be approved, but as the main drift of it represents repeated addresses to the lady.

There is a much greater consistency in the dances of the Italian theatre than of the French, notwithstanding dancing seems to be the genius of that nation; the following distinctly marked characters were originally from Italy; and if we consider them lineally as to their particular movements, we shall see wherein their humor consists.

The attitudes of the harlequin are ingeniously composed of certain little, quick movements of the head, hands, and feet, some of which shoot out as it were from the body in straight lines, or are twirled about in little circles.

Scaramouch is gravely absurd, as the character is intended, in over-stretched tedious movements of unnatural lengths of lines: these two characters seem to have been contrived by conceiving a direct opposition of movements.

Pierrot's movements and attitudes are chiefly in perpendiculars and parallels, so is his figure and dress.

Punchinello is droll by being the reverse of all elegance, both as to movement, and figure, the beauty of variety is totally, and comically excluded from this character in every respect; his limbs are raised and let fall almost altogether at one time, in parallel directions, as if his seemingly fewer joints than ordinary, were no better than the hinges of a door. Dances that represent provincial characters, as these above do, or very low people, such as gardeners, sailors, etc. in merriment, are generally most entertaining on the stage : the Italians have lately added great pleasantry and humor to several French dances, particularly the wooden-shoe dance, in which there is a continual shifting from one attitude in plain lines to another; both the man and the woman often fix themselves comically in uniform positions, and frequently start in equal time into angular forms, one of which remarkably represents two W's in a line, as in figure 4, plate 30: these sort of dances, a little raised, especially on the woman's side, in expressing elegant wantonness — which is the true spirit of dancing — have of late years been most delightfully done, and seem at present to have got the better of pompous unmeaning grand ballets; serious dancing being even a contradiction in terms.

Of Country Dancing. The lines which a number of people together form in country or figure dancing, make a delightful play upon the eye, especially when the whole figure is to be seen at one view, as at the playhouse from the gallery; the beauty of this kind of mystic-dancing, as the poets term it, depends upon moving in a composed variety of lines, chiefly serpentine, governed by the principles of intricacy, etc. the dances of barbarians are always represented without these movements being only composed of wild skipping, jumping, and turning round, or running backward and for ward, with convulsive shrugs, and distorted gestures. One of the most pleasing movements in countrydancing, and which answers to all the principles of varying at once, is what is called the hay; the figure of it altogether, is a cypher of S's, or a number of serpentine-lines interlacing, or intervolving each other, which suppose traced on the floor, the lines would appear as figure 3, plate 30. Milton in his Paradise Lost, describing the angels dancing about the sacred hill, picturesthe whole idea in words;

Mystical dance!
Mazes intricate,
Eccentric, intervolv'd yet regular

Then most, when most irregular they seem. I shall venture, lastly, to say a word or two of stage action. From what has been said of habitually moving in waving lines, it may possibly be found that if stage action, particularly the graceful, were to be studied lineally, it might be more speedily and accurately acquired by the help of the foregoing principles than the methods hitherto taken. It is known that common deportment, such as may pass for elegant and proper off the stage, would no more be thought sufficient upon it, than the dialogue of common polite conversation would be accurate or spirited enough for the language of a play. So that trusting to chance only, will not do. The actions of every scene ought to be as much as possible a complete composition of well-varied movements, considered as such abstractedly, and apart from what may be merely relative to the sense of the words. Action considered with regard to assisting the author*s meaning, by enforcing the sentiments or raising the passions, must be left entirely to the judgment of the performer, we only pretend to show how the limbs may be made to have an equal readiness to move in all such directions as may be acquired.

What I would have understood by action, abstractedly and apart from its giving force to the meaning of the words, may be better conceived by supposing a foreigner, who is a thorough master of all the effects of action, at one of our theatres, but quite ignorant of the language of the play; it is evident his sentiments, under such limitations, would chiefly arise from what he might distinguish by the lines of the movements belonging to each character; the actions of an old man, if proper, or not, would be visible to him at once, and he would judge of low and odd characters, by the inelegant lines which we have already shown to belong to the characters of punch, harlequin, pierrot, or the clown ; so he would also form his judgment of the graceful acting of a fine gentleman, or hero, by the elegance of their movements in such lines of grace and beauty as have been sufficiently described. See chapters V, VI, VII, VIII on the composition of forms. Where note, that as the whole of beauty depends upon continually varying, the same must be observed with regard to genteel and elegant acting: and as plain space makes a considerable part of beauty in form, so cessation of movement in acting is as absolutely necessary; and in my opinion much wanted on most stages, to relieve the eye from what Shakespeare calls, continually sawing the air.

The actress has sufficient grace with fewer actions, and those in less extended lines than the actor; for as the lines that compose the Venus are simpler and more gently flowing, than those that compose the Apollo, so must her movements be in like proportion.

And here it may not be improper to take notice of a mischief that attends copied actions on the stage; they are often confined to certain sets and numbers, which being repeated, and growing stale to the audience, become at last subject to mimicry and ridicule, which would hardly be the case, if an actor were possessed of such general principles as include a knowledge of the effects of all the movements that the body is capable of.

The comedian, whose business it is to imitate the actions belonging to particular characters in nature, may also find his account in the knowledge of lines; for whatever he copies from the life, by these principles may be strengthened, altered, and adjusted as his judgment shall direct, and the part the author has given him shall require.


SymmetryArt Theory