J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Thursday, January 22, 2015

Reading the Smiles of 18th-Century Art

The 12 January New Yorker includes Jonathan Kalb’s article “Give Me a Smile,” which describes in personal terms the importance of being able to smile.

Kalb writes, “The spontaneously joyful smile is the facial expression most easily recognized from a distance—as far as a hundred metres, researchers say.” Since the late 1800s, scientists have claimed and amassed evidence that the smile is a universal human expression.

I was struck, therefore, by this Boston Globe interview with Colin Jones about his new book, The Smile Revolution in Eighteenth Century Paris. According to this book, through the early 1700s “smiling widely in portraits meant that you were probably destitute, indecent, or mentally ill.” Here’s more detail:
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.
Of course, the open-lipped smile remained rare in formal portraits. And later, Jones says, portrait photography followed that style for decades, even after better chemistry and quicker exposures could capture natural smiles.

1 comment:

James Kabala said...

"the open-lipped smile remained rare in formal portraits. And later, Jones says, portrait photography followed that style for decades."

By strange coincidence, this has been in the entertainment (if you can call it that) news lately as well:

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2015/01/24/kanye-west-smile_n_6537832.html