Saturday, August 25, 2012


Edmund Burke thought that smoothness was essential to beauty.  He couldn’t even recall anything that was beautiful and not smooth.  His examples included smooth leaves, smooth slopes in gardens, smooth streams, smooth coats in animals, smooth skin in women, and smooth surfaces in furniture.  He thinks smoothness to produce the “most considerable” effect of beauty and that making a surface unsmooth takes beauty away. Uvedale Price was influenced by Burke on the matter of smoothness.  He writes "One principal effect of smoothness, and to which perhaps it owes its so general power of pleasing, is, that it gives an appearance of quiet and repose to all objects; roughness, on the contrary, a spirit and animation. These seem to me likewise the most prevailing effects of the beautiful and the picturesque.”  Townsend observes that for Price smoothness is not only sufficient for beauty but also necessary, saying “where there is a want of smoothness there is a want of repose.”  (Dabney Townsend “The Picturesque,” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, Vol. 55, No. 4 (Autumn, 1997), pp. 365-376 1997, 374)  (Uvedale Price, An Essay on the Picturesque as Compared With the Sublime and the Beautiful; and, On the Use of Studying Pictures, for the Purpouse of Improving Real Landscape (London: Printed for J. Robson, New Bond Street, 1794)  Price further writes “But among all the objects of nature, there is none in which roughness and smoothness more strongly mark the distinction between the two characters, than in water. A calm, clear lake, with the reflections of all that surrounds it, viewed under the influence of a setting sun, at the close of an evening clear and serene as its own surface, is perhaps, of all scenes, the most congenial to our ideas of beauty in its strictest, and in its most general acceptation.” (1794 #56)  But Price also adds quickly  “On the other hand, all water of which the surface is broken, and the motion abrupt and irregular, as universally accords with our ideas of the picturesque; and whenever the word is mentioned, rapid and stony torrents and waterfalls, and waves dashing against rocks, are among the first objects that present themselves to our imagination.”  So, smoothness is not necessary for all aesthetic qualities, only for beauty.  Also, he seems to hold a higher ideal in which both the beautiful and the picturesque are combined:  “The two characters also approach and balance each other, as roughness or smoothness, as gentle undulation or abruptness prevail.” Price also makes the distinction between the beautiful and the picturesque with regard to birds “Nothing is more truly consonant to our ideas of beauty, than their plumage when smooth and undisturbed, and when the eye glides over it without interruption: nothing, on the other hand, has so picturesque an appearance as their feathers, when ruffled by any accidental circumstance, or by any sudden passion in the animal.” (61)   And with respect to painting he says that Albano (Francesco Albani 1578-1660) s works are beautiful because smooth. 

Stewart disagreed with Burke about smoothness.  He thought that there was not one thing that all examples of beauty had in common.  Walter J. Hipple observes that, for Stewart, “there is, of course, association among the senses, so that smoothness may become beautiful.” (Walter J. Hipple Jr., "The Aesthetics of Dugald Stewart: Culmination of a Tradition” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 14:1, 1955, . 77-96). Quoting from Stewart “That the smoothness of many objects is one constituent of their beauty, cannot be disputed. In consequence of that intimate association which is formed in the mind between the perceptions of sight and those of touch, it is reasonable to expect that those qualities which give pleasure to the latter sense, should also be agreeable to the former.” But, as Hipple observes, this “effect is limited to objects destined to be handled, and the principle is inapplicable to objects which we characteristically do not think of touching because of their magnitude or situation. The beauty of smoothness is traced equally, moreover, to other kinds of associations-to the reflecting properties of smooth surfaces, to sexual associations, to associations of utility or design, and to custom.”  Stewart actually finds inspiration in Price’s concept of the picturesque in opposing the notion that beauty has the essential characteristic of smoothness (even though Price did not use this for this purpose as we saw above).

It should also be observed that smoothness is something that we can see as well as touch.  (Merleau-Ponty mentions this in “Cezanne’s Doubt.”)  Some have argued that although smoothness is valuable for beauty perfect smoothness would need some contrast to be beautiful. 

Price is mostly known for his views on the aesthetics of gardens.  As Stephanie Ross observes, Price was critical of Capability Brown for his over-reliance on the concept of smoothness.  She writes “Price criticized Brown's gardens in terms of the picturesque principles just deduced. Thus, he argued that smoothness and verdure cannot make amends for want of variety…, but instead become insipid and monotonous. And, in his chapter on water, he argued that water's most striking property is its ability to produce mirror-like reflections, yet the smooth banks of Brown's artificial lakes lacked those objects (trees, bushes, roots, tufts, tussocks, stones, lichens, mosses, etc.) which would make their reflections varied and interesting.” (274) (Stephanie Ross  “The Picturesque: An Eighteenth-Century Debate” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism,  46:2 (1987) 271-279.)

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