Why do we so seldom see people smiling in painted portraits? It’s a lot about how we want to be viewed, says Nicholas Jeeves.
Today when someone points a camera at us, we smile. Such are our expectations of a portrait. But, as a walk around any art gallery reveals, the open smile has been largely, as it were, frowned upon.
It’s commonly thought that for centuries people didn’t smile in pictures because their teeth were awful. This is not true – bad teeth were so common that this was not seen as necessarily detracting from a person’s attractiveness. Lord Palmerston, Queen Victoria’s Whig prime minister, was described as being devastatingly good-looking, despite having a number of prominent teeth missing due to hunting accidents. Nonetheless, both painters and sitters did have a number of good reasons for being disinclined to encourage the smile. The primary reason? It’s hard to do. In the few examples we have of smiles in formal portraiture, the effect is often not very pleasing, and we can still see this today. When a camera is produced, we perform gamely. But should the process take too long, our smiles become grimaces. A smile is like a blush – a response, not an expression, and it can neither be easily maintained nor recorded.
Turn to page 96 of June's The Simple Things for more,
A longer version of this article was originally published as ‘The Serious and The Smirk: The Smile in Portraiture’ in The Public Domain Review under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0
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