The Line of Beauty: Refiguring the Serpentine Line from Drawing into Photography

In his The Analysis of Beauty (1753), William Hogarth identifies, in contradistinction to “straight lines” and “curved lines,” a “serpentine line” that he terms the “line of beauty.” This line, articulated variously as a “waving line,” a “winding line,” and “the line of grace,” is unique because of the way in which it “leads the eye in a pleasing manner along the continuity of its variety.” For any artist, Hogarth concludes, the realization of such a line requires a “lively movement” of the hand “with pen or pencil,” as well as “the assistance of the imagination, or the help of a figure.”

Two centuries earlier, the Italian humanist Leon Battista Alberti, anticipating Hogarth, emphasizes a similar co-dependence of liveliness and line. In his treatise On Painting, he describes such a line as exemplified by the figural movements of properly depicted hair, which, he instructs the painter, should “twist as if trying to break loose from its ties and rippling in the air like flames, some of its weaving in and out like vipers in a nest, some welling here, some there.” Is there, then, an inherent connection-intimated by Hogarth’s “pen or pencil”-between embodied movement and the “line of beauty”?

In this exhibition, we trace the intimacy, tactility, and allusive capacity of this particular line: a line that “weaves” and “winds” from the Quattrocento through the contemporary moment. What does it mean for a line to be both “varied” and yet, as Hogarth suggests, also “proportion’d” and “precise”? How is Hogarth’s insight echoed, complicated, and unsettled by new mediums and new modes of artistic expression? We seek to consider these questions through diverse materials that range from photography and lithography to graphite drawings.

The works on view contribute to but by no means delimit a capacious lineage that situates bodies (Tiepolo, Guernico, Picasso), scribbles (Twombly), and geometric abstractions (Delaunay, Murray), along with surveillance photography (Gowin), ocean waves (Celmins), and hair (Smith). The interplay of “continuity” and “variety” that characterizes these images reproduces yet also, we hope, expands on Hogarth’s insight that the plenitude and pervasiveness of the “line of beauty” might be found in Nature’s “infinite choice of elegant hints.” The “line of beauty,” this exhibition finally suggests, is not merely a crafted form, figured by an artist. It is also a found thing, discovered and continuously made anew through attention to the visible variety of the material world.

Curated by Anna Moser, Kate Thorpe, Denise Koller, and Regina Teng- as part of HUM 598: Drawing and the Line in Literature and the Visual Arts, with Eve Aschheim and Susan Stewart 

  • 56364
    Lotte Jacobi, American, born Germany, 1896–1990
    Untitled (Photogenic), 1950–51
    2009-68
  • 6539
    Guercino (Giovanni Francesco Barbieri), Italian, 1591 - 1666
    Saint Mary Magdalene, ca. 1624–25
    x1948-1266
  • 51680
    John Cage, American, 1912–1992
    Printed by Lilah Toland, American, active 1978–1983
    Published by Crown Point Press
    Changes and Disappearances, Number 11, 1980
    2006-849.1
  • 13857
    Josef Albers, American, born Germany, 1888–1976
    Elephant, 1933
    x1977-66
  • 3658
    Paul Cézanne, French, 1839–1906
    Pine Tree in Front of the Caves above Château Noir, ca. 1900
    x1941-166
  • 7955
    Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, Italian, 1696–1770
    Seated Figure on a Cloud, Seen from Below
    x1948-834
  • 7976
    Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, Italian, 1696–1770
    Cloaked Figure on a Cloud
    x1948-848
  • 37552
    Emmet Gowin, American, born 1941
    Ground Zero and Other Features on Frenchman Flat, Nevada Test Site, 1997, printed 1998
    1998-20
  • 39949
    Francesca Woodman, American, 1958–1981
    House #3, Providence, Rhode Island, 1975–76, printed 1997
    2001-144
  • 18386
    Kiki Smith, American, born 1954
    Published by Universal Limited Art Editions
    Untitled, 1990
    x1993-273
  • 14453
    Sonia Delaunay, French, 1885–1979
    Untitled
    x1981-109
  • 41108
    Bruce Conner, American, 1933–2008
    Untitled drawing, December 18, 2000, 2000
    2002-252
  • 13383
    Cy Twombly, American, 1928–2011
    Note III, 1967
    x1975-41
  • 48741
    Sol LeWitt, American, 1928–2007
    Untitled, 1977, printed 1995
    1995-292 a-b
  • 37693
    William Hogarth, British, 1697–1764
    The Five Orders of Periwigs, 1761
    x1988-83
  • 10781
    after Albrecht Dürer, German, 1471–1528
    Anatomical Studies, 16th century
    x1966-47
  • 40958
    Jusepe de Ribera, Spanish, 1591–1652
    Studies of Male Head in Profile, ca. 1622
    2002-97
  • 16558
    Théodore Géricault, French, 1791–1824
    Study for "Raft of the Medusa", 1818
    x1986-9
  • 13983
    Vija Celmins, American, born 1939
    Printed by Tracy White at Tamarind Institute
    Untitled (Waves), 1970
    x1978-20
  • 7438
    Pablo Picasso, Spanish, 1881–1973
    Two Studies of Female Nudes ("Le Bain"), 1905–06
    x1948-1808