Hogarth’s Line of Beauty
William Hogarth is best known for his fabulous paintings and print series such as ‘A Rake’s Progress’ , ‘A Harlot’s Progress’ and ‘Marriage a la Mode’, but he also wrote a book called, ‘An Analysis of Beauty’ in 1753. In this book, Hogarth expresses his theories of visual beauty and grace in a way that was accessible to many readers, and develops what he calls, the ‘line of beauty’.
In his ‘Analysis of Beauty’, Hogarth outlines 6 key principles and says that ‘when duly blended together’ these ‘seem most to please and entertain the eye and give that grace and beauty, as is the subject of this investigation.’
1. Fitness: Hogarth describes that ‘fitness of the parts to the design for which every individual thing is formed, either by art or by nature, is first to be considered, as it is of the greatest consequence to the beauty of the whole.’ He goes on to say that, ‘the bulks and proportions of objects are governed by fitness and propriety.’ ‘Fitness’, therefore, refers to the overall relationship of composite parts or the overall design of an object – it has to be cohesive and appropriately matched together to form the object.
2. Variety: by variety, Hogarth means that any use of different forms, materials, colours etc. all provide interest for the viewer, so as to not be boring and unstimulating.
‘How great share Variety has in producing beauty may be seen in the ornamental part of nature. The shapes and colours of plants, flowers, leaves, the paintings I butterflies’ wings, shells, etc. seem of little intended use than that of entertaining the eye with the pleasure of variety.’
However, there has to be a limit to this variety, as he writes that ‘yet when the eye is glutted with a succession of variety, it finds relief in a certain degree of sameness.’ The perfect harmony of both variety but familiarity, Hogarth calls ‘a composed variety’.
3. Uniformity: the artist initially states that ‘it may be imagined that the greatest part of the effects of beauty results from the symmetry of parts in the object, which is beautiful: but I am very well persuaded that this prevailing notion will soon appear to have little or no foundation.’ Hogarth, essentially, argues that whilst uniformity is ‘necessary, to some degree, to give the idea of rest and motion, without the possibility of falling’, it is in the irregular that the eye can delight. Uniformity is required to give the object a sense of stability and structure, but it is not in symmetry that beauty is found.
4. Simplicity: for Hogarth, simplicity is important yet only when balanced with the other principles. He writes that, ‘simplicity, wthout variety, is wholly insipid and at best does only not displease.’ He prefers those designs that are ‘constantly varying’, yet also states that ‘simplicity gives beauty even to variety, as it makes it more easily understood, and should be ever studied in the works of art, as it serves to prevent perplexity in forms of elegance as will be shown in the next chapter.’ Simplicity is, therefore, a key principle to ensure that objects and art can be understood.
5. Intricacy: when it comes to intricacy, Hogarth is rather observant of human nature.
‘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.’
Indeed, he highlights how we love the thrill of the chase, ‘how joyless does the sportsman return when the hare has not had fair play?’ and that we require this in an aesthetic context also – it needs to ‘lead the eye on a wanton kind of chase’. Hogarth talks about how we can find this in nature, ‘the eye has this sort of enjoyment in winding walks, and serpentine rivers, and all sorts of objects, whose forms…are composed principally of what, I call, the waving and serpentine lines.’ An intricacy of form gives us this sense of aesthetic pursuit.
6. Quantity: When it comes to size, Hogarth articulates a very early sense of the sublime – ‘forms of magnitude, although ill-shaped, will, however, on account of their vastness, draw our attention and raise our admiration’. Moreover, he goes on to say that ‘when forms of beauty are presented to the eye in large quantities, the pleasure increases on the mind, and horror is softened into reverence.’ ‘In a word, it is quantity which adds greatness to grace. But then the excess is to be avoided, or quantity will become clumsy, heavy, or ridiculous.’
All of the above must, in Hogarth’s words, ‘ cooperate in the production of beauty, mutually correcting and restraining each other occasionally.’
To Hogarth, the perfect form, the ‘line of beauty’, is the serpentine line, ‘by its waving and winding at the same time different ways, leads the eye in a pleasing manner along with the continuity of its variety.’
Below, we have a pretty fabulous collection that we think Hogarth would approve of, complying with his notions of beauty. Or, click here to see our Georgian Furniture Style Guide.