Hogarth’s Line of Beauty – Terry Grant

Awhile back I went looking for other people’s thoughts about curves in art. At some point it occurred to me that the way curves are rendered , makes the difference between whether a work of art looks fluid and natural as opposed to stiff and labored. But what is it that makes one curve ‘good’ and another ‘bad’? I never did find any scientific or even philosophical answer that really satisfied me, so I am stuck with just knowing it when I see it, but in the course of my search I came across Hogarth’s Line of Beauty.

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The artist William Hogarth wrote a book called The Analysis of Beauty. You can actually read the entire text online here. (Disclaimer: I have not read it) Hogarth proposed that the essence of beauty of line in painting, drawing, nature and design is not the simple geometry of a straight line or circle, or more subtle shapes such as the ellipse, but of curves that modulate from one gradient to another. Such a curve, the “S” curve is such a structure and he called it “the line of beauty”. According to his theory, S-Shaped curved lines signify liveliness and activity and excite the attention of the viewer as contrasted with straight lines, parallel lines, or right-angled intersecting lines which signify stasis, death, or inanimate objects. He goes on to say that the S curve is the basis of all great art.

Here is one of Hogarth’s paintings:

hogarth.jpg

Do you see the line of beauty?

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It becomes a bit of a visual game. I started looking for it. Can you find it in the following paintings?

modigliani.jpg

Modigliani. (Sorry this is so small) Hint: look at the right side of her face and the left side of her right arm.

Another Modigliani:

modigliani2.jpg

Picasso:

picasso1.jpg

Look at your own work. Is it there? Should it be?

Here are some interesting links about curves and The Line of Beauty

  • Famous curves - I thought this was fascinating. Who knew particular curves were famous and had their own names?
  • The CSG Society - Opposing curves (trust me, this is not a porn site! It just looks a little dodgy at first glance.)
  • The Beauty of Curves - Observations about how the math of curves is reflected in the aesthetic of curves
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13 Responses to “Hogarth’s Line of Beauty – Terry Grant”


  1. 1 John P. Jack Finley July 22, 2012 at 4:53 pm

    I wonder if when the first humanoids gazed out upon the wandering meanderings of the streams running along their cave entrances that had developed over thousands of years slowly cutting its way by eroding the land beside it ~ did the sight impress or imprint a feeling of peace and tranquility that has evolved to an inborn sense of beauty ?

  2. 2 Jacque Jensen June 15, 2011 at 11:14 am

    Haven’t got time to look it up, but during the 17th Century in Dutch Art, the S Curve in floral still lifes was one of the most prevalent designs that were thought to be most beautiful and graceful. The information in the other comments was interesting. As I recall in my head, the “S curve” composition was also big in the “Vanitas” paintings. Love you, Jacque Jensen

  3. 3 mallory wober July 22, 2009 at 12:21 pm

    a very long time ago I wrote a piece which seems to have (subconsciously – I knew nothing of Hogarth’s theoris) explored much the same territory. I noted the development of the arch in church architecture, from the simple (Saxon) semicircle, via gothic developments finally arriving at the ogival (s shaped) curve to a point – repeated on each side of the arch.

    see

    Towards an Ecological and Informational Theory of Aesthetics.
    Bulletin of the British Psychological Society, 1968, 21, 235-239.

  4. 4 Xisca February 15, 2009 at 7:25 am

    I think one can apply this principle to Rafael Nadal, no?

  5. 5 terry grant February 25, 2008 at 11:52 pm

    Ah, thank you Kristin. I see as many clunky-looking curves in bad paintings as in bad textile work. It may be slightly more difficult to achieve a smooth curve in fabric than it is in paint, but it is the grace of the curve itself that I find troubling. There are curves that swoop wonderfully and curves that seem to go ee-ee-ee-eee around a corner like a shopping cart with a bad wheel. I guess I am talking more about the eye of the artist than I am the hand.

    I wrote a comment the other night that was so much more brilliant and well constructed than this one, but it disappeared into the ozone when I submitted it. I am unable to summon it back, but I will add the link that I think demonstrates lovely curves in textile work. That would be Judy Dales work. See it here: http://www.judydales.com/specialquilts.html

  6. 6 Kristin L February 25, 2008 at 10:50 pm

    One thing not yet mentioned is that the success of the curve is probably based more on it’s mindful use in the composition than on technique itself. Sure, it’s difficult to create a curved line with many textile techniques, but one could say the same about crappy technique in paint or pencil as well. Assuming the painter or fiber artist is skilled in his or her craft, then we find it’s the composition that’s carrying our eye — as in Terry’s examples (not the way Hogarth or Modigliani apply the paint).

  7. 7 june February 25, 2008 at 10:32 am

    Well, I am impressed; there sure are “considerably more than 10 ways to execute sharp or undulating curves in a design.”

    I would ask further, then, if they all have the same “line of beauty” as Hogarth’s perception of them insists. And this could be a crucial point. Is there a curved line of death, Terry? I should think so, but I’m not prepared to take a stand at the moment on the subject [insert snort].

    I also like Olga’s distinction “beautiful to execute as well as observe.” I think cutting paper could have something of the same beauty of execution, but cutting fabric might be too fiddly to give one that physical sweep. Fabric doesn’t hold still so the curves get jagged more readily.

    And I suspect that making curves with textile techniques, whether with rattail, ruching, braid, gimp, threadwork, cutwork, fusing, butting, et al, are all more fiddly with fabric than with paint — so the craft may be far more important in dealing with curves in fabric, and the physical expression has to be insinuated rather than just flung down as a painter with a good load of paint on the brush might be able to do.

  8. 8 Melanie February 24, 2008 at 10:48 pm

    Regarding 10 ways to curve textiles — much depends on how you define “textile.” If you mean closely woven fabric exclusively, and want a smooth flat surface, then Sheila has about covered it (cut, pieced/sewn, applique, reverse applique, fused, butted). If you allow some “terrain” over the surface, I’d add manipulations such as pleating, smocking, draping, and coiling, and the flexibility that comes from cutting on the bias. Bias is key.

    If, however, you include other fiber-based methodologies such as felting, knitting, lace, and (especially) crochet; surface treatments with things like rattail, ruching, braid, gimp, rope, and cords; threadwork; cutwork; and the various schools of embroidery, then there are considerably more than 10 ways to execute sharp or undulating curves in a design.

  9. 9 Sheila February 24, 2008 at 8:04 pm

    June, I don’t know about 10 ways to execute curves in txtiles, but besides free hand cutting and reassembling in various ways (pieced, appliqued, fused, butted), I immediately thought of the quilting line, especially done freemotion on the machine (which I personally am not good at) and couching of yarn or thread. Also, appliqueing down bias tubes as in Celtic applique.

    When I think about it, I’ve done all of these. I too have a real affinity for the undulating curved line. I’ve been playing a lot lately with the parallel straight lines too, so was taken aback by what Terry found: “…straight lines, parallel lines, or right-angled intersecting lines… signify stasis, death…” Ack! That’s not what I’m going for when I use them. They do signify more control though, and I’m really partial to control. Curved lines feel wild.

  10. 10 Olga February 23, 2008 at 5:25 am

    Thank you so much for the introduction to Hogarth’s idea. I’m a great lover of curved lines, and immediately think of the prints of Stanley Hayter as examples http://www.originalprints.com/artistview.php?id=342
    His always impress me also because he worked freehand and with such precision.

    As June says, curves are beautiful to execute as well as observe. Antony Gormley has produced some drawings recently relating to the reach of his hand, which when I see them always make me want to take a large sheet of paper and some implement (http://www.drawingroom.org.uk/fundraiser/index.htm – and scroll down to see the Gormley). But it is intriguing to think that Hogarth’s line is a universal, in the same class as the golden mean etc. A fascinating thought to explore – especially as examples of this line of beauty escape me totally when it comes to thinking of textiles. I’m off to look for examples.

  11. 11 June February 21, 2008 at 7:27 pm

    It occurs to me that the swishy curves that one can do with ease in paint can only be done with expert craft in textiles. I supposed that cutting and raw edge applique gets around the difficulty of piecing or appliquing but it doesn’t have the physical act of arm movement that the painted curve has. And the end result often isn’t as smooth and seamless as the painted S curve.

    Can anyone come up with the ten different ways (I made up that number) of achieving S curves in textiles? Or 10 ways to achieve curves at all?

  12. 12 Joanna February 21, 2008 at 5:25 pm

    How interesting! I’d never heard of this before. A really interesting idea to explore.

  13. 13 June February 21, 2008 at 9:30 am

    Ho, Terry, I love curves. Spent last evening smooshing oil paint around in great good curves. Had no idea there was An Idea floating about about them. What fun.

    Later I’ll try to be more serious.


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