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Thursday, August 8, 2013


Leonardo's Mona Lisa. I'd recognize that smile anywhere.
Self-portrait Smiling (some sources
use the word "laughing"), ca. 1770
Jean-Etienne Liotard
"Smile and say 'cheese'." Even amateurs photographers say those words. Actually professionals probably have something a little more creative. As familiar and traditional as those words might seem, they are actually a recent development in portraiture. Even photographic portraits from the 19th century seldom featured more than just a very modest grin. The exposure time was too long for the model to hold a consistent smile. The smiling photo is a photographic development of the 20th century. If that's the case with photography imagine how rare smiles were in painted portraits. Few people can smile for hours on end, yet the smile so changes the architecture of the face anything less than a "frozen" grin simply won't do. Neither models or painters were "up to" it.
Rembrandt van Rijn (1663)
in a playful mood.
Undoubtedly the most famous painted smile was Leonardo's Mona Lisa (top), as slight as and mysterious as it was. However, Mona and Leonardo did not have the field to themselves. Though rare during the years that followed , Rembrandt painted a couple self-portraits with slight to modest smiles (right). Maurice Quentin de La Tour and Etienne Liotard (above, left) did too, only somewhat more so. Perhaps the all time winner for flat out toothy (more or less) smile was Rembrandt's colleague, the Dutch artist, Frans Hals. Happy, smiling, toothy grins were almost a trademark of his portraits. Nonetheless such facial expressions were rare in painted portraits until the 20th century--and with good reason.
Malle-Babbe, 1635, Frans Hals
The smiling portraits of our times were the result of a number of factors coming together, some of which we've already touched upon, like modern photography. Coupled with that is modern dentistry (and modern dentures), as well as modern dental hygiene. Aside from technical considerations, there were good reasons portrait subjects did not smile--often 32 of them, in fact, hiding behind their sober expressions. Many simply didn't have the teeth for it. On rare occasions we see painted smiles with missing teeth, such as Etienne Liotard's Self-portrait Smiling (above, left). It would seem as if his personality was so "bubbly" he simply couldn't avoid smiling, despite his missing incisor. Any number of Hals grinning portraits, such as Malle-Babbe (left), indicate dental problems.

Pastel Portrait of President Obama,
Ruth Monsell

Even such 20th century portrait artists as Andy Warhol, Norman Rockwell, John Singer Sargent, Pablo Picasso, seldom painted big, toothy, grins. Doing so was a dead giveaway that the artist was working from photographs. Even Warhol, who made no pretense in his devotion to photographic sources seldom painted "smiley faces." Why? During the past century, we can no longer blame slow film speeds, poor dental hygiene, or even dour personalities. The real reason revolved around the avoidance of a "photographic" look to the portrait and simple aesthetic traditions. However all that is changing. Photographic aesthetics have come to be accepted in painted portraits, smiles are quite attractive, and perhaps most of all, they seem modern--contemporary. "Smile and say "Velveeta'."

Grimacing Man Self-portrait, 1822-23, Leopold Boily.
Some artists seem more intent on making us smile.

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