When the smile came to painting—and public life

A historian pinpoints the moment when France embraced happy faces

Painter Louise Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun smiles in her “Self-Portrait with Daughter,” 1784.

By Madeleine Schwartz Globe correspondent 

Is there anything more charming than a smile? It’s an expression of joy and pleasure, easy to spot and easy to understand. At the holidays, we send each other piles of cards with pictures of our beaming faces. In e-mails and texts, we append images of smiles in the form of emoji, signaling a range of positive sentiment from approval to laughter. “When you’re smiling,” as Louis Armstrong crooned in 1929, “the whole world smiles with you.”

Not so before the 18th century, when smiling widely in portraits meant that you were probably destitute, indecent, or mentally ill. As Colin Jones shows in a new book, “The Smile Revolution in Eighteenth Century Paris,” most European smiles of the time were hardly attractive—rotten teeth and empty gums gave even royalty sunken cheeks. In the context of art, the gesture often indicated condescension or scorn; a painted smile could make viewers pout. It wasn’t until the late 18th century that social custom relaxed and dental hygiene improved enough to make the smile popular, creating a “revolution” in expression between the Enlightenment and the French Revolution.


Physically, the smile is simple. It comes from the contraction of the zygomatic major, a muscle in the face. Babies smile soon after birth, some say hours after delivery, and engage in social smiling by the time they’re a few months old. People have always used a smile to communicate across linguistic barriers. Even animals, from apes to dogs, produce expressions similar to the smile.

But, as Jones describes, what the smile means changes with the mood of the time—and can even be different for men and women in the same culture. In France, for instance, Jones identifies a split that came at a specific moment in history. Whereas both men and women might have smiled in the free-spirited salons of the Enlightenment, after the Revolution, smiling became a primarily female function, along with childrearing and housework. “Men in dark suits would keep teeth and smiles out of their public repertoire,” Jones writes, “making the benign, white-tooth smile a quintessentially female attribute, best indulged in the domestic calm of the home.”

Jones, a professor of history at Queen Mary University of London, spoke to Ideas by phone from the National Humanities Center, where he is currently a fellow.

Colin Jones

IDEAS: We think of smiles as a natural expression of happiness or pleasure, but you say that in Europe of the 18th century, they could have a variety of meanings.

JONES: The smile can accompany a very wide range of emotions—probably a wider range than any other facial expression. I track that back to the uncertainty of scientists about the origins of the smile. It may come from the pleasurable reaction that great apes have, for example, when they’re tickled and when they’re feeling benign, but the smiling bare-toothed snarl which these apes present is also very close to the smile.


IDEAS: How would a smile have been understood at the beginning of that century?

JONES: The type of facial regime which is prevalent in France in the early 18th century is more negative about the smile. It tends to see the smile as a gesture of superiority over some misfortune, rather like laughter at that time is seen in very negative terms—you’re somehow rejoicing in the suffering of others. So when people smile, they smile, first of all in a restrained way which doesn’t show teeth...but also very often in ways which are seen as sardonic or contemptuous or disdainful.

IDEAS: What changed?

JONES: There are two principal factors....One is the emergence of something which is clearly, for the first time, close to modern scientific dentistry, which highlights good, healthy, and hopefully white teeth, and methods of care which are not simply, as they had been in the past, extraction of bad teeth but also a regime of prevention of mouth ailments and sickness....

Secondly, I try to tie it up with...the emergence of a cult of sensibility. I associate this particularly with the emergence of the novels of sentimentality and sensibility by Samuel Richardson and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who emphasize the overt and public expression of feelings, rather than their repression or distortion. People who look at the cult of sensibility often stress that people are always weeping in the 18th century—weeping with pleasure, weeping with ecstasy, weeping with anything, if you like. But actually part of that is this new smile, which somehow sends a transcendent message of selfhood and generosity and fellow-feeling.

IDEAS: Was there a political quality to the smile revolution?

JONES: Whereas hitherto a lot of new forms of behavior had been trialed or introduced for the first time at the royal court and then trickled down within society—everyone’s trying to emulate the models that the king and his courtiers have—what I argue in the book is that this is a form of behavior which really is created away from the court....It’s created in the public sphere of coffee houses, or in boulevards, walks, or in public parks, or in salons, or wherever, [which] introduced a new, more equal form of sociability....The smile seems an apposite gesture, a sign of a new, more egalitarian society.

IDEAS: So in smiling, was someone voicing approval for this new kind of culture?

JONES: It’s a participatory gesture; it shows that you’re one of a group of people. The thing about the smile—and psychologists and physiologists emphasize this—the smile is, in our own day, accepted as a sort of contagious thing. Someone smiles at you, you normally smile back. That’s the norm. By smiling back, you give a reinforcement of positive feelings to the original smiler.

IDEAS: Why did the “smile revolution” end?

JONES: This gesture, more than any other, is the sign of a new more democratic, more egalitarian society, but that falls apart as the revolution becomes more radical....The politics become too serious for a gesture like the smile, which is conciliatory, which emphasizes commonality of interests, sociability. What wins out are the much more serious, dignified, operatic gestures of neoclassicism.

IDEAS: You describe how we don’t really see smiles in photography until the mid-20th century.

JONES: Photography initially, and it’s the case often with new artistic media, tends to follow the styles of what is seen as culturally superior—in this case, painted portraits. So photographic portraits are often not
expressing the full potential of the medium to capture expression. They are often following the prompts from painting, which, as I say, has moved away from the 18th-century the more traditional, dignified, facially immobile, grey gravitas.

There is also the fact that initially the exposure time for photographic portraits is quite long—a couple of minutes. It’s almost impossible to keep a smile going for two minutes without it looking like a grimace or a smirk or very, very artificial. So that is not done. By the late 20th century exposure times are coming down quite drastically, but even then, people don’t really start smiling on camera....

It is not translated into portraiture until the 1920s and 1930s. It’s only then that photography realizes that it’s the perfect medium for capturing that smile, which is coming onscreen as a new cultural ideal.

Madeleine Schwartz is a writer in New York. Her work has appeared in Dissent and The Believer, among other publications.


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