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The history behind smiling in portraits

“Élisabeth-Louise Vigée-Le Brun – Madame Vigée-Le Brun et sa fille (1786)” by Louise Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Many of us learned as schoolchildren that George Washington never smiled in portraits out of embarrassment from his ill-fitting dentures. Though his wooden and ivory prostheses wouldn’t compare to the advancements achieved in modern dentistry, some historians argue that Washington’s stoic countenance doesn’t come from shame of poorly esthetic dentures, but from a former cultural taboo of smiling.

Modern dentistry has changed greatly in the past three centuries, but the advancements in the profession don’t come solely from developments in technology, materials and research. The smile is now synonymous with joy and excitement, and many people are willing to go to great lengths to have the perfect smile. Yet throughout history, the smile was analogous to foolishness, irrational emotion, and deceit. It’s no surprise that words smile and smirk in the English language share the same Old Norse origin.

However, it wasn’t until the 19th and 20th century that smiling became a widespread, popular cultural phenomenon. According to historian Colin Jones, a professor of art history at Queen Mary University of London, the point of inflection regarding the public opinion of smiling came about with a controversial self-portrait of Madame Elisabeth-Louise Vigée Le Brun, a French artist. In her painting, Le Brun, a young mother, portrays herself smiling ever so slightly, showing the incisal edges of her maxillary incisors.

“It caused something of a scandal, and people were roped in horror,” Jones said in an interview with Slate magazine. “It was an innovation that was most unwelcome. No one had been doing this thing since antiquity. If teeth appeared in a portrait, it was usually because the person being portrayed was plebian…or not in full command of their rational faculties.”

Jones argues that throughout Western Europe, the idea of showing one’s teeth demonstrated carnal desire, viciousness and juvenile stupidity. Circus performers, gamblers and musicians are depicted in Renaissance and Baroque art with giddy, smiles “on the margin of respectability.” In his most recent book, “The Smile Revolution,” Jones writes, “The white-tooth smile would have been unthinkable without major new developments taking place at the same time in dentistry, surgery and medicine. Late 18th century Parisian dentistry was the envy of the world. The city had generated new ways of thinking about teeth, and new ways of presenting them to the world.” Le Brun’s “Self-portrait” of 1786 comes during a time of great improvements in dental care, but also greater time social reform, philosophic enlightenment, and the burgeoning idea of individualism. Smiling in public, let alone perpetually in a portrait, defied traditional puritanism and the aristocratic contempt that the Enlightenment and similar movements so eagerly rejected.

Beginning in the 18th century, dentistry started to evolve from a trade of tooth pulling into a field of science. French surgeon Pierre Fauchard published in 1723 “The Surgeon Dentist,” a book that mapped out the anatomy of the oral cavity and documented techniques in restorative dentistry. Throughout the 1700s, dentistry made steady progress with the developments of root canal therapies, gold post and crown casting, and breakthroughs in dental porcelains. By the end of the 1800s, dentistry took shape into what it is today, with advancements in anesthesia, dental amalgams, toothpastes and mechanized hand pieces. Along with the explosion of dental innovations, smiling became more and more prominent in art and culture, according to Jones.

“If the emergence of the cult of sensibility in Enlightenment Paris was crucial to changes in the facial regime, so too was the rise of modern dentistry,” Jones writes in his book. “The Smile Revolution was to prove as slippery and transient as the smile itself.”

Jones argues it’s curious that Enlightenment-age Europeans took an interest the appearance of their teeth, because “in the 18th century, city dwellers’ teeth were in worse condition than in any other period in human history, and this is mainly because of the invasion of sugar in the town dweller’s diet,” Jones said in a podcast for Slate.

Rembrandt Peale [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.
Rembrandt Peale [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.
The diet of the 18th century Western Europeans — not excluding George Washington and the American colonists — consisted of many fermentable carbohydrates, including bleached flour and refined sugars from the Caribbean. Washington’s post-dinner ritual of “four to five glasses of Madeira wine” and his fondness for fruit pies, according to “The President’s Cookbook,” certainly didn’t help his deteriorating dentition, either. By the time he was inaugurated in 1789, Washington had only one surviving natural tooth, said Susan Schoelwer, curator of Washington’s Mont Vernon.

Though he may have not participated in what Jones describes as the “Smile Revolution,” the revolution Washington waged against the British monarchy for the sake of liberalism draws similarities with the chain reaction set off by Madam Le Brun’s self-portrait, and dentistry is all the better for it. “The 1787 painted smile was merely the tip of a very sizeable and well-formed iceberg that already extended into literature and the arts,” Jones writes. “It had assumed added significance in social and political life, as we shall see, had come to constitute an overt critique of…monarchy and aristocracy.”

~Mark Herring, East Carolina ’17


Mark Herring

Mark Herring is a second-year dental student at East Carolina University School of Dental Medicine. Mark is president of his school’s chapter of the Hispanic Student Dental Association and pursues any opportunity to engage the Latino population of North Carolina in oral health. In his free time, Mark runs marathons, cooks and brews his own beer.

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1 Comment

  1. It’s always interesting to see how cultural attitudes shift. Sometimes we take smiles for granted, but I for one think the acceptance of the smile in media is an improvement.

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