Naked proportion

"La Grande Odalisque," by Ingres,

“La Grande Odalisque” (1814), by Jean-August-Dominique Ingres, Louvre.

Here is Roger Scruton’s passage regarding the human body and its proportions, from Chapter 3 of The Classical Vernacular:

Imagine a beautifully formed body – as depicted by Ingres, for example. Here we see a certain kind of perfection, in the lengths and disposition of the limbs, in the proportions of the body to leg, head to neck, and so on. And imagine a purely mathematical version of this figure – the head replaced by a oval pumpkin, the legs by tubular sandbags, and what you will. The mathematical relations would remain; but the beauty would have disappeared. It would cease to be appropriate to speak of proportion. For the proportion of a figure belongs to it only as interpreted. It is as a head that the oval relates to the column upon which it rests, and as a body that the column relates to the head. And not just any head or body: the head and body of a young woman, in whose eye shines the light of reason, and who therefore looks at us out of the picture.

"The Birth of Venus" (1486) by Sandro Botticelli, Uffizi

“The Birth of Venus” (1486) by Botticelli, Uffizi

The mathematics of the perfect body may be disturbed without doing violence to the grace and beauty, provided that the details retain their significance, and call to each other in the right tone of voice, so to speak, across the spaces that divide them. Thus, in Botticelli’s Venus we see a most extraordinary distortion of the neck, an elongation of the arms, and a thousand departures from our common-sense anatomy. But what grace is there, nevertheless. It is just this kind of grace that may survive in the vernacular use of columns and architraves, even in the most surprising places, and detached entirely from the context that gave rise to them.

As soon as three readers comment on this post, I will as a reward pop “A Sleeping Odalisque” by Ingres into my next post. So you will want to have something to say.

About David Brussat

For a living, I edit the writing of some of the nation's leading architects, urbanists and design theorists. This blog was begun in 2009 as a feature of the Providence Journal, where I was on the editorial board and wrote a weekly column of architecture criticism for three decades. Architecture Here and There fights the style wars for classical architecture and against modern architecture, no holds barred. My freelance writing and editing on that topic and others addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am a fellow of the Royal Society of the Arts, and a member of the board of the New England chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, which bestowed an Arthur Ross Award on me in 2002. I work from Providence, R.I., where I live with my wife Victoria, my son Billy and our cat Gato. If you would like to invest your prose with even more style and clarity, please email me at my consultancy, dbrussat@gmail.com, or call 401.351.0457. Testimonial: "Your work is so wonderful - you now enter my mind and write what I would have written." - Nikos Salingaros, mathematician at the University of Texas, architectural theorist and author of many books.
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3 Responses to Naked proportion

  1. westfall2 says:

    Vitruvius explains that a building must have symmetria and eurhyhmy. The former imitates the proportions of models that nature provides, such as the Vitruvian man, while the latter burnishes the parts to make and the whole to make the proportionality visible. Ingres does it to perfection, and so do the traditional buildings we eternally admire.

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    • Professor, I wonder whether anyone’s ever studied the extent to which a normal human, in creating any artistic composition, architectural or otherwise, would naturally select divisions in his work that reflect a proportional system. I also wonder how many proportional systems an architect training for classicism would be encouraged to learn, and to what extent he would have recourse to them in practice. Are there any answers off the top of your (or anyone’s) head to these questions?

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  2. steve bass says:

    David –
    Thanks for posting these sections from Scruton. He is a sympathetic, reasonable and knowledgeable voice on the classical idea, especially on beauty and its relation to proportion. Proportion in classical art and architecture is a guide, not an end in itself, as he points out. It can be used in two ways – as a compositional guide within the frame and as a relational system of the elements to each other. In the Venus the frame is a golden section, the height being .618 of the width. The figure of Venus willows between two squares taken from either side of the frame, and the horizon is at .618 of the height of the frame, right on the navel of Venus. In the Odalisque the figure is anatomically impossible yet wildly erotic – only a master of human proportions could have distorted the figure in these ways yet created such an object of intense desire. Proportion uses number and geometry as its means of expression but number is considered as symbol rather than magnitude – it is not mathematical in the conventional sense and, though it requires some study of its principles, those with ‘math anxiety’ need not fear.
    Thanks again –
    Steve Bass, Fellow ICAA

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