So much ambiguity can be packed into the phrase “hourglass figure”. This shape proved useful when unifying elements of a picture into a single frame. The roots of the hourglass extend at least into the 1300s in Europe but, its use as a foundation design form go much further back to ancient Egypt as seen in the pictograph for twisted flax, the letter “H”. The hourglass can shape can be found in other related forms like the “X” and “S” shapes. The X, I, S and O are as old as picture letters come. Ancient Greeks used the X as the mark of the Khi or Chi . . . . In some renderings one bar of the X is straight while the other is S shaped . The “S” can trace its roots to different Hieroglyphic letter shapes, all snake forms. I have assembled a set of pictographs in example 1. They include a rectangle known to us as the trapezoid, a form descended from Greek geometers which appears as a foreshortened rectangle when placed within another square. The X and The S may similarly be foreshortened when used as a unifying device in pictures.
Here are examples across time and cultures of artists using the hourglass figure in a variety of mutations as a unifying structural device in their work. Notice how the X shape and curvilinear shape of the hourglass merge in different images. Notice how they are distorted but, still serve their unifying function and observe how they are foreshortened to heighten the sensation of space within the pictures.
Example 2 shows a 15th century (Cima da Conegliano, 1460) example of the foreshortened S or serpentine form which is slightly compounded with the hourglass design. Example 3, painted by Lucas Cranach in 1537 presents an obvious use of the X/hourglass. Later examples demonstrate the elasticity of the form such as the Ming Dynasty painting by Liu Yuanqi in 1601 (example 4). Chinese artists often relied upon the serpent or dragon shape with its loops to unify an image as well as present a metaphor to the viewer. Observe its shared characteristics with the hieroglyph of the twisted flax. I have overlayed diagrams using lines of aquamarine or fuchsia superimposed on these images to illustrate their design structure.
We have long considered the hourglass shape as a flattering form for the human figure both for men and women though today we principally apply the term as flattering for women. In 1587 Veronese uses framing elements such as a boy’s arm and opposing drapery to give Jesus a more hourglass form. (See example 4).
Using stacked ovals in a loose combination of the serpentine and the hourglass is a painting by John Singer Sargent early from the 20th century. I did not include my diagramming here so that you might discover the pattern independently. (See example 5). His models are posed in costumes from Sargent’s own collection.
The following examples are my work in which I applied the hourglass/s/x design. These examples are presented with and without superimposed diagrams. The first of these examples are with urban subject matter and therefore, more rectilinear. They offered an opportunity to use the foreshortened effect of the trapezoid shape which is then inverted to give the effect of a foreshortened X (see examples 6 and 7).
The final example offers more curvilinear and biomorphic forms. These are closer to the feeling of the hourglass but, with elasticity. Observe the Barn Island image references a foreshortened version of the “twisted flax” hieroglyph. (See examples 8 and 9)