The Smile in Portraiture
September 25, 2013 5:41 AM   Subscribe

Thank you for posting this. I'll be thinking about this every time I photograph people now.
posted by kinnakeet at 5:53 AM on September 25, 2013

Maybe people were just really bad at painting teeth.
posted by escabeche at 6:01 AM on September 25, 2013 [1 favorite]

People keep linking to that site this month, and I keep seeing that portrait of Swinburne over on the right sidebar, and I swear to hell he's the 10th Doctor.

It's true, I tell you! It's all true!
posted by Naberius at 6:03 AM on September 25, 2013

So reasons:

People had crap teeth and didn't want to show them.

Art was SERIOUS BUSINESS, damn it, and serious people were serious in their serious portraits. It was okay for peasants and clowns and lunatics to smile, but why the hell are you painting people like that in the first place?

Nobody was happy. Everybody in the past was suffering from depression and PTSD because life was nasty, brutish, and short.
posted by Naberius at 6:05 AM on September 25, 2013 [1 favorite]

life was nasty, brutish, and short.

Isn't the answer a bit more sanguine?

*Sits down in chair. Looks at painter. Smiles.*

"How long is this going to take?"

"All day. Maybe two. Don't move."

posted by three blind mice at 6:12 AM on September 25, 2013 [25 favorites]

People had crap teeth and didn't want to show them.

The article addressed this myth (or oversimplification, at least).

I think the more real question to me is why are people so often smiling in modern portraiture (photos). The article calls this smile "the cultural and social reflex of our time", but it still doesn't feel normal to me once I give it any thought at all. The piece seems to approach historical portraiture as something that must be explained, but if you take a random selection of Facebook photos and hold them against a random selection of painted portraits from the past few centuries, it's the latter that depict our many faces more honestly to me.

Are there people around you right now? How many of them are broadly smiling?
posted by distorte at 6:14 AM on September 25, 2013 [5 favorites]

The article calls this smile "the cultural and social reflex of our time", but it still doesn't feel normal to me once I give it any thought at all.

Two things, though. The article points out the Dutch painters gleefully going after the smiles of lower-class folks, but it isn't really until the modern era that nearly all of our portraits (including our Facebook pictures) are of the lower classes. None of us are aristocrats, and even our aristocrats are not pursuing any particular dignity. Second, there is a push in our culture to always be happy, always be pursuing pleasure, which fails on most fronts, but the force of it comes out in our representations of ourselves: Smile! Say cheese! Make sure 100 years from now no one knew how stressed out you were!

So 100 years from now there will be viewers puzzling over the strained musculature of our jaws and cheeks, compared to the smooth calm lines of our forebears.
posted by mittens at 6:38 AM on September 25, 2013 [1 favorite]

The purpose of a smiling snapshot photo is very different from the purpose of a painted portrait.

In a photo we smile because we want to communicate a direct emotion about that moment in time. We're on vacation! Enjoy our happiness vicariously through this staged shot! Happy holidays! We hope that we have not offended your religious sensibilities and that you accept our well wishes which you can see by way of the smile shapes our mouths are making! What a great prom! My cheeks hurt but I've been raised to believe that girls are prettier when they smile!

In a painted portrait the goal is usually to present an idealized version of a person's physical form. It's to answer "what does this person look like?" and sometimes "how should you feel about this person?" Portraits of presidents and CEOs rarely feature smiles, partially because you're supposed to respect them and perceive them as powerful, or at least serious. Headshots of actors show that they can display a variety of emotions while still being physically attractive. Portraits, regardless of the medium used to create them, are foremost about that person's actual appearance, and secondarily about what the artist wants to communicate emotionally. Smiling photos are less about a person's body and more about a person's feelings.
posted by Mizu at 6:45 AM on September 25, 2013 [8 favorites]

I smile in posed photos because I have a serious resting bitchface problem and all my UK official document photographs make me look like a serial killer.

Presumably a proper old-fashioned portrait artist could smooth that out to make me look less psychopathic, and indeed appear quite wise and aloof instead. "Clever," as the article says. A camera just captures the bitchface, so these days, lacking in professional portrait artists, you might as well smile for the camera.
posted by olinerd at 6:55 AM on September 25, 2013 [2 favorites]

all my UK official document photographs make me look like a serial killer

I got a new ID photo taken recently, and you are not supposed to smile. Friends who have seen it think I should use it in the promotional material for my new career as a hitman for hire.
posted by Dr Dracator at 8:02 AM on September 25, 2013

I was just thinking about this the other day. My explanations were 1) it's hard to do as he said in the article, but at least now we have photos to work from and 2) often I think the focus of a portrait is the eyes and if the subject is smiling, the eyes change due to the smiling mechanism which is also difficult to render and they have to be perfectly consistent with the smile or the person looks like a maniac.
posted by AnnElk at 8:14 AM on September 25, 2013 [1 favorite]

I've always thought that this was simply because it's hard to get a model to hold a realistic smile for any length of time. It's raised in the article in passing, but comfort and ability to hold a pose is one of the defining limits of working with live models. There were some clever folks who figured out work-arounds, but it remained a hard problem to solve, which only a few were able to crack.

Technical problems of smiles being difficult to draw, I view as like painting hands. It's hard to do right, and small mistakes look awful. However, as countless twentieth-century commercial and even comic book artists have shown, it's an entirely trainable skill, with the right reference material.

I think the instantaneous nature of photography has utterly changed portraiture. The expectation of a smile is just one manifestation of that immediacy.
posted by bonehead at 8:16 AM on September 25, 2013 [1 favorite]

What's there to smile about?
posted by philip-random at 8:50 AM on September 25, 2013

I think you don't see people smiling in portraits for much the same reason that we don't see them weeping, or looking disgusted, or picking their teeth, or leering, or eating etc. etc. This is just a matter of genre conventions; a portrait is not a "snapshot," it's not supposed to reference the person in a frozen moment in time but rather conjure up an idealized sense of the person as a complete human being. Paint them smiling and you move the painting into a different genre--be it history painting or genre painting or whatever--in which you're capturing a person in the middle of one particular narrative, in which they are smiling at some one or some thing in particular. Paint them with a relatively noncommittal expression and you allow us to imagine them in a multitude of potential scenarios, in which they might be just about to smile or to laugh or to frown or what have you.
posted by yoink at 9:20 AM on September 25, 2013 [4 favorites]

I am confused by this author's (and Dickens's) use of the word "smirk." They seem to be using it to refer to any closed-mouth smile, not only to those that are irritatingly smug, conceited, or silly.
posted by HotToddy at 9:20 AM on September 25, 2013

MetaFilter: a serious resting bitchface problem
posted by Foosnark at 9:45 AM on September 25, 2013 [2 favorites]

It's interesting that US Presidents didn't start smiling in their standard "headshot" portraits until Reagan. They all did after that. Presumably Obama will continue.

Apparently the "official portrait" is a different thing, less familiar to most of us.
posted by George_Spiggott at 9:49 AM on September 25, 2013 [2 favorites]

Where does Joseph Ducreux fit into all this?
posted by vespabelle at 11:38 AM on September 25, 2013 [4 favorites]

Not only would the subject of the portrait have to smile for too long of a time, the painter would also have to keep saying "say cheese" over and over again.
posted by ChuckRamone at 12:55 PM on September 25, 2013

I specialized in portraiture as an art major many years ago. Trying to paint someone smiling is like trying to paint someone sneezing.
posted by helpthebear at 2:47 PM on September 25, 2013 [1 favorite]

This is an interesting question but I don't think the article gets it quite right. In the classical doctrine of the passions, laughing and weeping represent two opposite extremes, symbolised by the opposing figures of Democritus the laughing philosopher and Heraclitus the weeping philosopher. The temperate man is expected to strike a balance between the two, in accordance with the principle of the golden mean. Thus portraits tend to depict their sitters as calm and composed, neither smiling nor frowning.

You also have to remember that until the modern period, smiling or laughing didn't indicate good humour, it indicated contempt. Hobbes famously describes laughter as a feeling of superiority over other people, a 'sudden glory arising from some sudden conception of some eminency in ourselves, by comparison with the infirmity of others'. Montaigne says it's better to laugh than to weep, 'not because it is more pleasant, but because it expresses more contempt and condemnation'. So to have yourself depicted with a broad smile on your face would be deeply insulting to the viewer.

There are rare exceptions, and they are interesting. I've always been intrigued by Andrew Gifford, whose portrait (circa 1774) shows him with a creepy grin, like some character out of Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell. However, I think the smile must be intended to indicate Christian benevolence, as according to a contemporary elegy (pdf): 'No rigid frown sat low'ring on his face, / But ev'ry look spoke godly tenderness, / Malignant words did not his lips defile, / But all he said was with a pleasing smile'.
posted by verstegan at 3:52 PM on September 25, 2013 [7 favorites]

all my UK official document photographs make me look like a serial killer

A fun game to play with passport photographs, ID cards etc is to get a group of people together and play 'What's my crime?' It's surprising how easily people's ID card expressions sort into these categories: you can tell within minutes which are the serial killers, which the petty thieves, who just committed GBH, who has been taken by the secret police for dissident beliefs, etc.

Disappointingly, my current work ID was taken at an odd angle and simply makes me look like I am the moody one in a boy band. Crimes against music, I suppose?
posted by Acheman at 3:42 AM on September 26, 2013

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