Saturday, September 21, 2013

Smiling was historically considered uncouth

Today when someone points a camera at us, we smile. This is the cultural and social reflex of our time, and such are our expectations of a picture portrait. But in the long history of portraiture the open smile has been largely, as it were, frowned upon. ...

A walk around any art gallery will reveal that the image of the open smile has, for a very long time, been deeply unfashionable. Miss La Creevy’s equivocal ‘smirks’ do however make more frequent appearances: a smirk may offer artists an opportunity for ambiguity that the open smile cannot. ...

It remains a commonly held belief that for hundreds of years people didn’t smile in pictures because their teeth were generally awful. This is not really true – bad teeth were so common that this was not seen as necessarily taking away from someone’s attractiveness. ...

Nonetheless, both painters and sitters did have a number of good reasons for being disinclined to encourage the smile. The primary reason is as obvious as it is overlooked: it is hard to do. In the few examples we have of broad smiles in formal portraiture, the effect is often not particularly pleasing, and this is something we can easily experience today. When a camera is produced and we are asked to smile, we perform gamely. But should the process take too long, it takes only a fraction of a moment for our smiles to turn into uncomfortable grimaces. What was voluntary a moment ago immediately becomes intolerable. ...

Smiling also has a large number of discrete cultural and historical significances, few of them in line with our modern perceptions of it being a physical signal of warmth, enjoyment, or indeed of happiness. By the 17th century in Europe it was a well-established fact that the only people who smiled broadly, in life and in art, were the poor, the lewd, the drunk, the innocent, and the entertainment – some of whom we’ll visit later. Showing the teeth was for the upper classes a more-or-less formal breach of etiquette. ...

By 1877 the photographic pioneer Eadweard Muybridge had solved the problem of fleeting movement with his series of photographs entitled The Horse In Motion. As we know from artists’ previous attempts to paint running horses, the horse’s movement was impossible to capture accurately in paint. Thanks to Muybridge’s pictures, almost overnight all the painted horses became transformed from awkward caricature into great galloping beasts. And before you could say ‘cheese’ photographers found themselves able to capture another fleeting thing: the true smile.
--Nicholas Jeeves, Public Domain Review, on why so serious