The Smile in Art

Published Categorized as What I have been up to

Something a bit different this time………

I was recently given the opportunity to deliver an art workshop for adults on emotions. Seeing as art is really very much about emotions, this was initially a slightly daunting and huge blank canvas to fine tune! I started with the idea of exploring how different emotions had been represented in art (HUGE!), I looked at the impact of gender in the expression of emotions (ALSO HUGE) and eventually settled upon narrowing considerations down to the, as it turns out, not-so-simple smile. And, not being an art historian, I learnt a lot! Seeing as I am always banging on about emotions, I thought I would share some of it with you.

The History of Smiling in Paintings

  • Smiling to represent enjoyment, happiness and warmth, as it is often considered today, was simply not etiquette for much of history – certainly not for the upper classes.
  • The vast majority of paintings pre 1900 did not portray smiles. The exceptions were paintings produced either by the odd maverick artist who was so well established they felt they could experiment and not risk their reputation, or artists (like the Dutch Genre painters) who deliberately sought to portray scenes from real life – which often included the poor, the insane, those lacking moral restraint, the innocent, or the entertainers as these people were deemed ‘outside’ the etiquette of containing your emotions.
  • If you persuaded your subject to smile for a painting, the painting would become about the smile and not the portait. This was not what any painter would want and it would risk damaging their reputation. This would also not be something the sitter would not want to risk.
  • Showing teeth in a portrait was a big no-no! It was originally thought that this was because teeth were so often in such poor condition. However, further speculation reconsidered the teeth hypothesis. As everyone’s teeth were so crooked and brown, their prevalence probably did not detract from the idea of what was attractive. It was then thought that the reason for so few smiles was that a smile broad enough to show teeth  (pre-photos) would have been hard to pose for an artist for a long time. Nobody can know for sure!
  • The smirk was more acceptable as it was not considered to represent the unrestrained expression of emotion. In art, a smirk more pleasingly creates an enticing and open-ended curiosity than a less complex and solid representation. I do feel art is better when it leaves us wondering than when it offers greater certainty (rhetorical mark) although I might not have consciously thought this before now! A smirk could characterise aroused interest, mocking, boredom, haughty contempt, discomfort, gentle amusement, serenity, awkwardness, contentment, or mild embarrassment fir example – which are more likely to offer us a greater emotional engagement with the image.
  • The unrestrained smile returned to fashion – apparently – by the joy triggered from attending the newly-created Paris coffee houses in the 18th century. Coffee might do that to me too! However, they still tended not to be included in paintings as a general rule.

Here are some examples to illustrate the points made above.

John Singer Sargent Miss Eleanor Brooks 1890

Singer Sargent created this portrait of a warm and engaging smile but in the end went for the more serious portrait on the right.

Antonello da Messina’s Portrait of a Man (ca.1475)    

Antonello was an example of a somewhat maverick artist. He painted quite a few portraits with smiles although never a broad beam of unconscious joy. In this portrait the smile can be received in a variety of ways it would seem judging from the response in the workshop – from creepy to warm! It’s all in the interpretation!

Dutch Genre Paintings

Franz Hals’ Malle Babbe (1633–1635)

Originally thought to be a painting of a witch, it was later realised it was more likely a portrait of Barbara Claes who was a resident or a hospital near Haarlem, Netherlands for the mentally unwell. Malle means crazy and Babbe means alcoholic or drunk. It an example of an allowable smile as it is not from the upper classes. It’s also interesting to note that societies that were more uptight about maintaining class segregation were far more conservative about including smiles in paintings – or indeed painting those who were not from the higher echelons!

Gerrit van Honthorst’s The Laughing Violinist (1624)

Another Dutch Genre painter who depicts a musician (music was often symbolic of love) but is quite risqué because it goes further and includes a gesture of sexual interest! It is hung (deliberately – apparently) immediately to the right of his portrait Girl Counting Money, as intended and it becomes clear who this gesture is aimed at!

Jan Steen, Self Portrait, 1663-5

A self-portrait from another Dutch Genre painter. As someone said the the workshop, ‘if the lute is a representation of love, this could be a smiley invite to come and look at my large instrument!’

William Hogarth

William Hogarth included smiles in his satirical paintings generally to imply the subjects were insane, criminal, morally dodgy. He was also interested in the impact a smile had on beauty and later, when he was established and had nothing left to prove, he painted the Shrimp Girl (pictured right) which he never completed or displayed publicly, but that remained in his house until his death.

Madame Grand Louise Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun.  1787

Vigée Le Brun was a successful artist who mostly painted portraits of women. She painted more than thirty portraits of Marie Antoinette and her family. She was clearly counter-culture as some of the paintings of Antoinette were not deemed suitable for public consumption and she caused controversy when she painted this self portrait smiling (with teeth). For this portrait she was accused of being a narcissist and tasteless. I happen to think it is a beautiful representation of the love and tenderness felt within motherhood. Vigée Le Brun was quite a character it would seem and wrote her memoirs which might be worth a read!

Woman Smiling Augustus John 1908-9

Augustus John was a Welsh artist. This portrait is of Dorelia McNeill – his mistress who eventually became part of a ménage à trois with the artist and his wife. She was described as quiet and enigmatic and considered quite Bohemian as she took cues from Romany gypsies for her style.

Mona Lisa Leonardo Da Vinci c 1503-6

I think we can safely say this is in the realm of the smirk and almost definitely the most famous one! It is almost certainly a portrait of Italian noblewoman Lisa del Giocondo. I read that the Mona Lisa shot to fame in 1911 when it was stolen by Italian: Vincenzo Peruggia who felt Italy should own it (again!). I am not overly convinced about its captivation based on its supposed changing expression (some say depending upon whether you’re looking at it face on or with peripheral vision) but she had to be included in a post about smiles really didn’t she?

We went to look at more modern paintings of smiles and considered the many things a smile could represent but I might save that for another post!

A snippet from the second in William Hogarth’s six painting satirical series: Marriage A-la-mode 1743. This mocks arranged marriages for political and wealth gains. This picture shows the marriage has already broken down and the wife’s ‘fall in morality’ is clearly hinted at – I mean she’s smiling for a start!