Some recent video game discourse over “leading lines” got me thinking about what is the history of the concept? Obviously it was a thing in photography and/or painting before it was ever used in video games, but for how long?
This reminded me of a quote form Linda Nochlin’s Realism (emphasis mine):
Nobody,’ Perrier insisted, ‘could deny that a stone-breaker is as worthy a subject in art as a prince or any other individual. … But, at least, let your stone-breaker not be an object as insignificant as the stone he is breaking.’ The same point was made by Louis de Geoffroy in discussing the Burial at Ornam: ‘the funeral of a peasant is not less touching to us than the convoy of Phocion. The important thing is to avoid localizing the subject, and in addition, to emphasize the interesting portions of such a scene.’
Not specifically anything about leading lines, but both are about visually emphasizing subjects of the painting. And are prescriptive enough about it to feel Courbet is doing something wrong by not providing such emphasis. The Stonebreakers was painted in 1849 and Burial at Ornans was painted in 1849-1850.
So this train of thought lead to me searching Archive.org for old writing using the phrase “leading lines” in this way. I did find that people were using “leading lines” this way at least as early as the 1800s.
Here I found a book from 1905 that appears meant to teach art appreciation, which makes multiple references to leading lines as an attribute the student should note:
Would it not have been easy to make this a stiff, uninteresting picture? How has the artist avoided such an effect? Does it denote a scientific study of design? Is there an elaborate arrangement of leading lines? Or a brilliant effect from opposing masses of light and dark? Is it conceived in a naturalistic temper?Outlines for the Study of Art
The Art Journal proved a good source. Here’s one from 1882(?)
‘Merry as the Day is long,’ by Mr. Fred. Morgan. The best picture which we have ever seen from Mr. Morgan’s easel. Three children playing in a farmyard, and climbing about a pair of huge timber wheels, are contrasted with the tired form of an old labourer to whom they are gleefully shouting. The shadows are rather blue, and there is a want of force in the composition of light and shade, but the colour is harmonious and warm, and the leading lines are thoroughly expressive and agreeable.The Art Journal
Here’s an earlier case where a painting is complemented on its use of leading lines:
In the blue drawing-room are a picture of ‘The Marriage of St. Catherine,’ by Andrea Schiavone, pleasing in the leading lines, glowing in the colouring …From The Penny Magazine 1840
From 1825 I found an example using it in reference to architecture rather than painting.
The horrible deformities called Steeples, … are unfortunately ever introduced in such situations as to ruin the effect of the porticoes over which they stand, by an arrangement which in most cases interferes with the leading lines of the main feature.A footnote in Illustrations of the Public Buildings of London (1825)
Though these references don’t necessarily say the leading lines are used to guide the eye. Much of the “leading lines in video games” discourse is about using those lines to draw attention to something in particular, but these old quotes seem to evaluate them aesthetically pleasing in themselves and make no note of what is being emphasized. I start to wonder if they originally meant “leading” as “foremost” and someone retroactively took it to be about leading the eye about the image? A folk etymology that in-turn changes the use of the phrase.
So I search for “leading the eye” and find this from The Art Union Monthly:
A coast-view is somewhat of a trial for a landscape painter; for consisting generally of so little, the want of objects must be atoned for by the finest feeling in leading the eye over the generally flat surfaces of which these scenes are composed.Art Union Monthly (1842)
So that supports the idea that paintings were considered in that way and there was an expectation that painters are playing a part in leading the viewer’s eye.
Maybe I need to read something like this book? The Education of the Eye by Peter de Bolla.
It claims that at the moment when works of visual art were first displayed and contemplated as aesthetic objects two competing descriptions of the viewer or spectator promoted two very different accounts of culture.
It would make sense to me if the idea of “leading lines” developed in parallel with the idea of the art connoisseur. The connoisseur wants a framework to discuss the painting in more detail than “this is good.”
I’m also interested in how different movements in painting thought about it. From Linda Nochlin’s Realism, as well as some other contemporary criticism of the realists, I get the sense they would paint things that many saw as unpleasing composition, because it reflects what they would naturally see in real life. While the Romantics, for example, I get the sense they were willing to paint what might be “unrealistic” to support the desired composition of the painting.