Picture Composition – The Line Of Beauty

The most elastic and variable of the fundamental forms of composition is the line of beauty, the letter S, or, conceived more angularly, the letter Z. This is one particularly adapted to upright arrangements and one largely used by the old masters. We are able to trace this curvilinear feeling through at least one-third of the great figure compositions of the Renaissance. Note the page of sketches in the chapter on Light and Shade.’ Though selected for this quality they show a strong feeling for the sweeping line of the letter S. “The Descent from the Cross,” a most marked example, can well be considered one of the world’s greatest compositions. Over and over again Rubens has repeated this general form and always with great effect. Whether the line is traceable upon the vertical plane or carries the eye into the picture and forms itself into the graceful union of one object with another, its great pictorial power is revealed to any who will look for it.

In Hogarth’s essay on ” The Line of Beauty,” he sets forth a series of seven curves selecting No. 4 as the most perfect. This is duplicated in. nature by the line of a woman’s back. If two be joined side by side they produce the beautiful curve of a mouth and the cupid’s bow. Horizontally, the line becomes a very serviceable one in landscape. As a vertical it recalls the upward sweep of a flame which, ever moving, is symbolic of activity and life. To express this line both in the composition of the single figure and of many figures was the constant effort of Michael Angelo and, through Marcus de Sciena, his pupil, it has been passed down to us. By the master it was considered most important advice. ” The greatest grace,” he asserts, ” that a picture can have is that it express life and motion, as that of a flame of fire.” Yet in the face of such a statement from the painter of the ” Last Judgment ” it is difficult to reconcile the lack of it in this great picture.

The compound curve which this line contains is one of perfect balance, traceable in the standing figure. As an element of grace, alone, it affords the same delight as the inter-weaving curves of a dance or the fascination of coiling and waving smoke. Classic landscape, in which many elements are introduced, or any subject where scattered elements are to be swept together and controlled is dependent upon this principle. An absolute line is not of course necessary, but points of attraction, which the eye easily follows, is an equivalent. Many simple subjects owe their force and distinction entirely to a good introduction through a bold sweeping curved line. Thanks to the wagon track of the seashore, which may be given any required curve, the formality and frequent emptiness of this subject is made to yield itself into good composition. When the subject rejects grace and demands a rugged form, the sinuous flow of line may be exchanged for an abrupt and forcible zigzag. In such an arrangement the eye is pulled sharply across spaces from one object to another, the space itself containing little of interest. In the short chapter on Getting out of the Picture, the use of this zigzag line was emphasized.

The opportunity offered in the film-like cirrus clouds, which so frequently lie as the background to the more positive forms of the cumulous, for securing the oppositional feeling, is one frequently adopted by sky painters. Besides strengthening the structure pictorially such arrangement frequently imparts great swing and movement in the lines of a sky, carrying the eye away from the horizon. When positive cloud motion is de-sired these oppositional masses may become very suggestive of wind, different strata showing a contrasted action of air currents.

As an adjunct to any other form of composition this line may be profitably employed. It plays second with graceful effect in the ” Path of the Surf,” ” The Lovers,” ” The Stream in Winter,” ” The Chant,” ” 1807,” and is traceable in many of the best compositions.