The mystery on why people didn’t smile in old portraits – revealed!


Apparently, it’s more of a case of etiquette than having bad teeth.

We’ve already learned that centuries ago, only the privileged and the rich have their portraits painted or shot. We’ve also been able to see portraits from these ages, and have thus observed that people usually don’t smile at all!

‘Miss Eleanor Brooks’ (1890) by John Singer Sargent and a ‘Portrait of Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger of the Federal Army’ (taken between 1860 and 1865). Photos via the John Singer Sargent Virtual Gallery and the Library of Congress

Writer and artist Nicholas Jeeves, in an extensive article titled, The Serious and the Smirk: The Smile in Portraiture revealed that such people used to take on either of these two facial expressions when having their portraits done: a serious one, or a smirk.

Mona Lisa’s ‘enigmatic smile’ – or rather, smirk – has captured the attention of many and sparked numerous discussions over the ages. Photo via Wikipedia

According to him, smirking is a “subtle and complex facial expression [that] may convey almost anything.” On the other hand, people do a serious pose because of – surprise, surprise – eventual discomfort brought by holding a pose for so long. Obviously, it would be extremely uncomfortable and even painful for the subject to hold a smiley pose for hours, or even repeatedly for days until the portrait is finished, so they opt not to.

Also, believe it or not, there had been a time when smiling broadly in general– something so common and pleasant these days – was said to be done only by “the poor, the lewd, the drunk, the innocent, and the entertainment.”

As French priest and reformer St. Jean-Baptiste De La Salle wrote in “The Rules of Christian Decorum and Civility of 1703,”

There are some people who raise their upper lip so high… that their teeth are almost entirely visible. This is entirely contradictory to decorum, which forbids you to allow your teeth to be uncovered, since nature gave us lips to conceal them.

Can you believe that!

Jeeves also debunked the notion that people those days had really bad teeth so they didn’t smile. “…bad teeth were so common that this was not seen as necessarily taking away from someone’s attractiveness,” he wrote.

He went on to discuss how portraits were “never so much a record of a person, but a formalised ideal. He then quoted American author Mark Twain,

A photograph is a most important document, and there is nothing more damning to go down to posterity than a silly, foolish smile caught and fixed forever.

It’s good to learn about such rigid practices and viewpoints for when taking a portrait during the olden days, but thank God we didn’t live during those times!

All information in this article were sourced from The Public Domain Review.

Related article:

Delicate 19th Century Portraits by Julia Margaret Cameron

written by chooolss on 2013-09-24 in #lifestyle #mark-twain #paintings #smiling #smirk #portraits #analogue-lifestyle #nicholas-jeeves #jean-baptiste-de-la-salle #the-rules-of-christian-decorum-and-civility-of-1703

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