Past Events

employ’d, twisted & tortur’d: Hemp Rope, Female Models & the Line of Beauty

Research Lunch – Zoe Dostal

  • 3 November 2023
  • 1:00 – 2:00 pm
  • Paul Mellon Centre

In 1753, William Hogarth published his landmark treatise The Analysis of Beauty with an illustration of the “line of beauty” on the cover. He identified this serpentine line as the basis for all beauty in art and nature. Decades earlier, Hogarth carefully studied and drew from a life model, Nell Robinson, who held her body in a similarly serpentine shape by grasping a suspended rope in her left hand. The moment of contact between bare skin and coarse rope betrays her physical labour and serves as the catalyst for this enquiry. In this paper, derived from her doctoral dissertation, Zoë argues that female models conceptually and materially shaped the visual arts in eighteenth-century Britain, and that by learning to see the ropes their labour becomes visible. Rope was a typical tool for life drawing, but here it is treated as a locus of meaning with particularly complex associations in Britain. The relationship of women and hemp rope in Hogarth’s life drawings and popular prints illuminates the many ways in which labouring-class women encountered, produced and were controlled by hemp. In turn, Zoë explores how those resonances played out in life modelling and the resulting drawings, and demonstrates how the first major aesthetic treatise by a British artist originated from Robinson’s precarious and painful pose, supported by rope. Throughout, she invokes the metaphorical possibilities of rope as a tool that twists, knots and ties otherwise distant people and places together, and makes apparent, a richer and more complicated world of art making.

Image caption: William Hogarth, A female nude, c.1720-1735, black and white chalk on buff paper, 36.9 x 28.9 cm. Royal Collection Trust (RCIN 913482). Royal Collection Trust / © His Majesty King Charles III 2023

About the speaker

  • Zoë Dostal is a PhD candidate in art history at Columbia University and the 2022–2024 Kress Predoctoral Fellow at the Courtauld Institute of Art. Her dissertation argues that rendering textile labour visible in eighteenth-century British art reveals that manufacturing, imperialism and the visual arts were financially, materially and ideologically enmeshed processes. This project, titled “Rope, Linen, Thread: Gender, Labor, and the Textile Industry in Eighteenth-Century British Art”, has been supported by the Huntington Library, the Dr Lee MacCormick Edwards Charitable Foundation, the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art and the Winterthur Museum, Garden & Library. Zoë has a BA in art history from Vassar College and an MA from the Courtauld Institute, and she has held curatorial internships at the Courtauld Gallery, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.