'smile regimes'
December 14, 2014 6:40 PM   Subscribe

Incorruptible Teeth, or, the French Smile Revolution
In 1787, Madame Vigée-Lebrun, painter to France’s royal and aristocratic elite, displayed a canvas at the Paris Salon. It was a self-portrait depicting the artist in an affectionate embrace with her daughter. Vigée-Lebrun is smiling—a sweet, broad smile revealing white teeth. There is little about this pose that seems in any way exceptional, yet exception was furiously taken. “An affectation which artists, art-lovers and persons of taste have been united in condemning,” wrote an anonymous commentator, “and which finds no precedent amongst the Ancients, is that in smiling she shows her teeth. This affectation is particularly out of place in a mother.”

How the smile came to Paris (briefly), aka Grin City. posted by the man of twists and turns (21 comments total) 37 users marked this as a favorite
Yay for Vigée Le Brun! Her self-portrait at the Kimbell Museum in Fort Worth is loaded with luminous/diaphanous details that are a delight to examine in person, and her memoirs are interesting too. I don't recall reading about this teeth controversy before, though, and it's fascinating. Thanks!
posted by Monsieur Caution at 6:55 PM on December 14, 2014 [1 favorite]

"In fact, in Robespierre’s case, it knocked all his teeth out on the scaffold."

Not a fact. Robespierre shot himself in the jaw at the hotel de Ville. A doctor extracted some teeth then wrapped his jaw. His wrapping did fall off at the guillotine were he died, screaming in agony.

He knocked his own teeth out which is ironic, more so then the assumption of the writer of this piece.
Speaking of David and smiles, it is interesting to note his portraits but his last portrait by David was of him on the Trumbull and his mouth is open a bit. All known portraits of Robespierre are surprisingly normal except his supreme being days.
posted by clavdivs at 7:28 PM on December 14, 2014 [3 favorites]

Thanks for posting this. Great frame work and comprehensive.
posted by clavdivs at 7:33 PM on December 14, 2014

Odysseus you outdo yourself again. Fascinating.
posted by Mei's lost sandal at 7:38 PM on December 14, 2014

"...portraits of Danton..."
posted by clavdivs at 8:13 PM on December 14, 2014

That was really interesting! Thanks for sharing.
posted by harrietthespy at 8:17 PM on December 14, 2014

the accidental removal of Louis XIV's upper right jaw during the extraction of his few remaining teeth in 1685, so that 'every time the king drank or gargled, the liquid came up through his nose, from where it issued like a fountain'

posted by Wolof at 8:22 PM on December 14, 2014 [4 favorites]

Why on earth is the image embedded in the article one which appears to have been edited to ferme la bouche?
posted by mwhybark at 9:37 PM on December 14, 2014 [5 favorites]

“An affectation which artists, art-lovers and persons of taste have been united in condemning,” wrote an anonymous commentator, “and which finds no precedent amongst the Ancients, is that in smiling she shows her teeth. This affectation is particularly out of place in a mother.”

Imagine this person was brought forward in time and introduced to the Internet. "And here is where you can consume other people's self portraits and if they are a woman anonymously criticize their artistic choices and fitness for motherhood. Everybody's doing this." They would be thrilled.
posted by bleep at 9:38 PM on December 14, 2014 [4 favorites]

A few years later, convincing patients to trust you as a dentist via fancy furniture. (Self link)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 11:03 PM on December 14, 2014

tl;dr "The characteristic French smile of the 1790s was the acme of horror and terror: the rictus of the gaping, mutilated mouth. 
posted by mecran01 at 3:00 AM on December 15, 2014

Fun David Sedaris story on getting dental care in Paris: Dentists without Borders
posted by discopolo at 4:37 AM on December 15, 2014

Franz Hals in the early C17th has quite a number of toothy smiles. See e.g.
posted by yoink at 9:09 AM on December 15, 2014

Now that I think about it, I seem to recall reading a piece about smiles in portraiture that argued that the opposition to a tooth-baring smile in the portrat--as opposed to the genre-painting, like the Hals I linked to above--is that while a genre-painting is understood as the capturing of a moment in time, the portrait is to be read as a general summation of the character of the sitter. That is, showing your portrait subject in a tooth-baring smile would suggest that they were a kind of mindless loon who wore an inane smile thoughout their entire life. It would be as inappropriate as having your portrait subject be beating their chests and weeping or tearing their hair in a fit of anger or something.

Which is to say that I'm rather skeptical of the notion that it had to do with how dreadful dental hygiene was in the C18th. That seems a little Just-So-y to me. I'm sure dental hygiene was awful, but that wouldn't actually have meant that there weren't plenty of perfectly attractive young men and women wandering around who could produce pearly-white smiles. It's not as if artists felt compelled to faithfully register every untreated sore, every smallpox scar etc. etc. on their subjects faces or that unblemished teeth would have been so extraordinary as to be beyond the artist's imagining.
posted by yoink at 9:17 AM on December 15, 2014 [2 favorites]

The smile in portraiture
posted by The Whelk at 9:46 AM on December 15, 2014

The smile in portraiture

Ah, so I didn't so much recall reading that argument as making it in that thread. Well, I think it's a damn good argument. That yoink fellow in that thread is clearly on to something.
posted by yoink at 12:13 PM on December 15, 2014 [1 favorite]

Franz Hals in the early C17th has quite a number of toothy smiles. See e.g.

Raphael? Caravaggio? Velázquez? Murillo?

* Content note: the first two links have noticeable penises. First link is Baby Jesus penis, though.
posted by sukeban at 2:27 PM on December 15, 2014

So over in that other thread, verstegan wrote:

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.

Which makes no sense to me. Am I supposed to believe that babies in the 17th century didn't laugh with delight at things that surprised them? Or that, if they did, people would feel insulted? Why would a king need a jester if laughter was merely an expression of superiority?
posted by straight at 4:14 PM on December 15, 2014

yoink, if you're into a deep look at the role of portraiture in acting as an intended display mechanism for the sitter's character, you may want to take a look at my friend Chris' (academic art history) book Discerning Characters. I can't effectively summarize the book, so I won't.
posted by mwhybark at 4:55 PM on December 15, 2014

Great point yoinks.
The book: " The Revoutionary career of Maximillen Robespierre" gives a thumbnail sketch of all known portraits of Robespierre. A lot of his early portraits are all smiley even into the revolution.
I'm not sure when this idea of barring teeth was deemed counter-revoltionary or when it may have been noted. Danton was injured in the mouth in his youth that slightly bore teeth as in Davids' portrait. There could be something there.
posted by clavdivs at 6:39 PM on December 17, 2014

"By 1789, he had invented what became known as his “Incorruptible Teeth,” and had had them approved by the most prestigious academies and learned societies.

should be noted that "incorruptible teeth" has nothing to do with Robespierre as "the incorruptable"
No one in the thread has posited this and perhaps the writer of the article thought this cogimon (sic sp) was used in 89' but it was not.
posted by clavdivs at 6:49 PM on December 17, 2014

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