The quest for the ideal human figure upon which, as upon a scaffolding, the artist may build up the creature of his imagination, is one which has exercised many minds, some approaching it from what I may be allowed to call the aesthetic direction, others from that of pure science. Hogarth, who states that there is no practicable rule by lines for minutely setting out proportions for the human body, and that if there were, the eye alone must determine us in our choice of what is most pleasing to itself, was yet desirous of showing the importance of appreciating the just proportions of the ideal human figure. ' I fear,' he says, 'it will be difficult to raise a very clear idea of what constitutes or composes the utmost beauty of proportion, such as is seen in the Antinous, which is allowed to be the most perfect in this respect of any of the antique statues, and, though the lovely likewise seems to have been as much the sculptor's aim as in the Venus, yet a manly strength in its proportion is equally expressed from head to foot in it. Let us try, however, and as this masterpiece of art is so well known, we will set it up before us as a pattern, and endeavour to fabricate, or put together in the mind, such kind of parts as shall seem to build another figure like it.
In doing which we shall soon find that it is chiefly to be effected by means of the nice sensation we naturally have of what certain quantities or dimensions of parts are fittest to produce the utmost strength for moving or supporting great weights ; and of what are most fit for the utmost light agility, as also for every degree, between these two extremes. He who hath best perfected his ideas of these matters by common observations, and by the assistance of arts relative thereto, will probably be most precisely just and clear in conceiving the application of the various parts and dimensions that will occur to him, in the following descriptive manner of disposing of them, in order to form the idea of a fine-proportioned figure. Having set up the Antinous as our pattern, we will suppose there were placed on one side of it the unwieldy elephant-like figure of an Atlas, made up of such thick bones and muscles as would best fit him for supporting a vast weight, according to his character of extreme heavy strength; and on the other side, imagine the slim figure of a Mercury, everywhere neatly formed for the utmost light agility, with slender bones and taper muscles fit for his nimble bounding from the ground. Both these figures must be supposed of equal height, and not exceeding six feet.
Our extremes thus placed, now imagine the Atlas throwing off by degrees certain portions of bone and muscle proper for the attainment of light agility, as if aiming at the Mercury's airy form and quality, whilst, on the other hand, see the Mercury augmenting his taper figure by equal degrees, and growing towards an Atlas in equal time, by receiving to the like places from whence they came the very quantities that the other had been casting off, when, as they approach each other in weight, their forms of course may be imagined to grow more and more alike, till, at a certain point of time, they meet in just similitude; which, being an exact medium between the two extremes, we may thence conclude it to be the precise form of exact proportion fittest for perfect active strength or graceful movement, such as the Antinous we proposed to imitate and figure in the mind.' It is with more exact methods than this that I have in these lectures to deal, yet would I crave your permission, before proceeding to them, to lay before you those luminous passages in which Sir Joshua Reynolds showed his appreciation of the existence of a type-form of the human body, together with his knowledge of the order which really exists under the seemingly indefinite variations from that type. 'All the objects,' he says, 'which are exhibited to our view by Nature, upon close examination will be found to have their blemishes and defects.
The most beautiful forms have something about them like weakness, minuteness, or imperfection. But it is not every eye that perceives these blemishes. It must be an eye long used to the comparison of these forms, and which, by a long habit of observing what any set of objects of the same kind have in common, has acquired the power of discerning what each wants in particular. By this means we acquire a just idea of beautiful forms; we correct Nature by herself, her imperfect state by her more perfect, and make out an abstract idea of forms more perfect than any one original. From reiterated experience and a close comparison of the objects of Nature, the artist becomes possessed of a central form from which every deviation is deformity. To the principle I have laid down, that the idea of beauty in each species of being is an invariable one, it may be objected that in every particular species there are various central forms, which are separate and distinct from each other, and yet are undoubtedly beautiful; that in the human figure, for instance, the beauty of Hercules is one, of the Gladiator another, of Apollo another, which make so many different ideas of beauty.
It is true, indeed, that these figures are each perfect in their kind; but still, none of them is the representation of an individual, but of a class. And as there is one general form which belongs to the human kind at large, so in each of these classes there is one common idea and central form which is the abstract of the various individual forms belonging to that class. Thus, though the forms of childhood and age differ exceedingly, there is a common form in childhood and a common form in age which is the more perfect as it is more remote from peculiarities. But I must add further, that though the most perfect forms of each of the general divisions of the human figure are ideal, and superior to any individual form of that class, yet the highest perfection of the human figure is not to be found in any one of them. It is not in Hercules, nor in the Gladiator, nor in the Apollo, but in that form which is taken from them all, and which partakes equally of the activity of the Gladiator, of the delicacy of the Apollo, and the muscular strength of the Hercules. There is, likewise, a kind of symmetry or proportion which may properly be said to belong to deformity.
A figure lean or corpulent, tall or short, though deviating from the type, may still have a certain union of the various parts which may contribute to make them, on the whole, not unpleasing.'