Domestic Utility and Useful Lines: Jean-Charles Krafft's and Thomas Hope's Outlines

By Cohen, Alexis H. | Journal of Art Historiography, December 2013 | Go to article overview

Domestic Utility and Useful Lines: Jean-Charles Krafft's and Thomas Hope's Outlines


Cohen, Alexis H., Journal of Art Historiography


The elegance of the outline, remarkable in these vases, the character of their distinguishing simplicity, but, above all, the genius, which must be supposed in the artists, who invented them and that strange variety of contours, soon create a desire of knowing the time, and place, where they were made, as well as those industrious people, to whom we are indebted for these masterpieces.

... in the art of vase making, as well as in their architecture, [the ancients] never sought after the agreable [sic] prior to the useful; and it is not to be doubted ... that the different uses for which their vases were design'd produced that variety in the shapes, they have given them: from whence it must be concluded, that, it is only in their end or purpose itself, that we must seek after the reason of these differences, which being always calculated to answer their object, can never fail of having some sign to make themselves known.

Pierre d'Hancarville1

Introduction

In the architectural and design publications that helped generate and define Neoclassicism, praise for linearity, lines, outlines, and contour was often accompanied by an equally high regard for utility. Antique works were read via their contours and the simple outlines of sculpture, vases, and red and black figure painting were analyzed through the outline drawing, a graphic idiom praised by contemporary audiences and practitioners as particularly well-suited to the expression of ancient aesthetic values.2 The outline drawing, which enjoyed widespread popularity c. 1800, mimicked its object of study, offering itself as a visual correlate and empathetic reflector of the newly unearthed ancient works which artists and the general public sought to understand. (Figure 1) George Cumberland, an advocate and theoretician of the outline drawing, suggested that if practiced by 'the hands of learned draughtsmen/ outlines could convey the spirit of the ancients, allowing their monuments to 'reach us uncontaminated and pure.'3

Given eighteenth-century interest in Greek and Roman antiquity, practitioners of Neoclassicism inevitably wanted to know how ancient buildings and objects were originally used. How did the forms of Greek vases reflect their use? What purpose did different temple rooms serve? Antiquarians such as the self-styled Baron d'Hancarville, most famous for his role in publishing Sir William Hamilton's first vase collection, thought these questions would lead to a greater understanding of antiquity.4 If vases and architectural ruins could be better understood, then their forms could be viewed with new appreciation of their meaning. Analyses of their use could reveal who the ancients were.

The British sculptor and draughtsman John Flaxman's oeuvre, particularly his engraved illustrations of Classical texts such as Homer's Iliad and Odyssey5, as well as his low-relief sculptural and modeling work, have been an important site for scholarly discourses on the nature of the outline drawing and its place within Neoclassicism's characteristic linearity.6 In particular, discussions of Flaxman's work, and its affinity to ancient vase painting, have been central to defining the outline drawing's status as an idiom primed for the expression of ancient aesthetic values.7

The line of the outline drawing, which Cumberland defined as 'fine, firm, flowing, and faint,'8 indeed created an emphatically simple graphic language allied to the neoclassical aesthetic ideals of clarity and purity. It facilitated and expressed the draughtsman's communion with the beauty of his depicted objects.9 In addition to their connection to ancient aesthetic ideals, outlines were also, as d'Hancarville's comments on vases suggest, tied to notions of use as a parallel means of accessing the past. This paper highlights the significance of this discourse for the study of the outline drawing, examining how notions of utility did not simply guide eighteenthcentury investigations of antique buildings and objects, but were imbedded in the very lines of one of Neoclassicism's most iconic forms of representation. …

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