1902 Encyclopedia > Aesthetics > William Hogarth. Edmund Burke.

(Part 29)


William Hogarth. Edmund Burke.

Passing by the name of Sir Joshua Reynolds, whose theory of beauty closely resembles that of Père Buffier, we come to the speculation of another artist and painter, [William] Hogarth. He discusses in his Analysis of Beauty all the elements of visible beauty, both form and colour, often manifesting great speculative skill, and always showing a wide and accurate knowledge of art.

He finds altogether six elements in beauty, namely – (1.) Fitness of the parts to some design, as of the limbs for support and movement; (2.) Variety in as many ways as possible, thus in form, length, and direction of line, shape, and magnitude of figure, &c.; (3.) Uniformity, regularity, or symmetry, which is only beautiful when it helps to preserve the character of fitness; (4.) Simplicity or distinctness, which gives pleasure not in itself, but through its enabling the eye to enjoy variety with ease; (5.) Intricacy, which provides employment for our active energies, ever eager for pursuit, and leads the eye "a wanton kind of chase"; (6.) Quantity or magnitude, which draws our attention, and produces admiration and awe.

The beauty of proportion he very acutely resolved into the needs of fitness. Hogarth applies these principles to the determination of degrees of beauty in lines, and figures, and compositions of forms. Among lines he singles out for special honour the serpentine (formed by drawing a line once round from the base to the apex of a long slender cone) as the line of grace or beauty par excellence. Its superiority he places in its many varieties of direction or curvature, though he adds that more suddenly curving lines displease by their grossness, while straighter lines appear lean and poor.

In this last remark Hogarth tacitly allows another principle in graceful line, namely, gentleness, as opposed to suddenness, of change in direction, though he does not give it distinct recognition in his theory, as Burke did.

Hogarth’s opinions are of great value as a set off against the extreme views of Alison and the association school, since he distinctly attributes a great part of the effects of beauty in form, as in colour, to the satisfaction of primitive susceptibilities of the mind, though he had not the requisite psychological knowledge to reduce them to their simplest expression. In his remarks on intricacy he shows clearly enough that he understood the pleasures of movement to be involved in all visual perception of form.

[Edmund] Burke’s speculations on the beautiful, in his Philosophical Inquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, are curious as introducing physiological considerations into the explanation of the feelings of beauty. They illustrate, moreover, the tendency of English writers to treat the problem as a psychological one.

He finds the elements of beauty to be – (1.) Smallness of size; (2.) Smoothness of surface; (3.) Gradual variation of direction of outline, by which he means gentle curves; (4.) Delicacy, or the appearance of fragility; (5.) Brightness, purity, and softness of colour.

The Sublime he resolves, not very carefully, into astonishment, which he thinks always contains an element of tenor. Thus "infinity has a tendency to fill the mind with a delightful horror."

Burke seeks what he calls "efficient causes" for these phenomena in certain affections of the nerves of sight, which he compares with the operations of taste, smell, and touch. Terror produces "an unnatural tension and certain violent emotions of the nerves," hence any objects of sight which produce this tension awaken the feeling of the Sublime, which is a kind of terror. Beautiful objects affect the nerves of sight just as smooth surfaces the nerves of touch, sweet tastes and odours the corresponding nerve fibres, namely, by relaxing them, and so producing a soothing effect on the mind. The arbitrariness and narrowness of this theory, looked at as a complete explanation of beauty, cannot well escape the reader’s attention.

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