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