The Serious and the Smirk: The Smile in Portraiture
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,
A walk around any art gallery will reveal that the image of the open smile
has, for a very long time, been deeply unfashionable. ‘Smirks’ do however make
more frequent appearances: a smirk may offer artists an opportunity for
ambiguity that the open smile cannot. Such a subtle and complex facial
expression may convey almost anything — piqued interest, condescension,
flirtation, wistfulness, boredom, discomfort, contentment, or mild
embarrassment. This equivocation allows the artist to offer us a lasting
emotional engagement with the image. An open smile, however, is unequivocal,
a signal moment of unselfconsciousness.
Such is the field upon which the mouth in portraiture has been debated: an
ongoing conflict between the serious and the smirk. The most famous and
enduring portrait in the world functions around this very conflict. Millions of
words have been devoted to the Mona Lisa and her smirk – more generously
known as her ‘enigmatic smile’ . But to write about the smile in portraiture
without mentioning her is perverse, for the effect of the Mona Lisa has always
been in its inherent ability to demand further examination. Leonardo impels us
to do this using a combination of skilful sfumato(the effect of blurriness, or
smokiness) and his profound understanding of human desire. When you first
glimpse her, she appears to be issuing a wanton invitation, so alive is the smile.
But when you look again, and the sfumato clears in focus, she seems to have
changed her mind about you. This is interactive stuff, and paradoxical: the
effect of the painting only occurs in dialogue, yet she is only really there when
you’re not really looking. The Mona Lisa is thus, in many ways, designed to
frustrate — and frustrate she did.
The hubbub around her smile really got going in the 19th century, when
unfettered critical devotion to Renaissance art was at an all-time high.
Artfully concealed under the guise of Romantic criticism, this was in fact
an expression of the new cult of the Mona Lisa, and over the years historians
would attempt to outdo each other with their devotion to her charms.
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. Lord Palmerston, Queen
Victoria’s whig prime minister, was often described as being devastatingly
good-looking, and having a ‘strikingly handsome face and figure’ despite the
fact that he had a number of prominent teeth missing as a result of hunting
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. 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.
A portrait was never so much a record of a person, but a formalised ideal. The
ambition was not to capture a moment, but a moral certainty. Politicians were
particularly sensitive to this. Consider Abraham Lincoln. Here was a man better
known than most, in his day, for his sense of humor, there being a number of
well-known stories about him regularly drawing hoots of laughter from those
in his company. While there are some informal images of him looking distinctly
avuncular, a wit doesn’t abolish slavery without tough critical opposition, and
in his best-known image, the ‘Gettysburg portrait’, he takes on the gravest
expression imaginable. So powerful are these images that this is how he is
generally remembered today.
Nowadays each of us is recorded across hundreds, or thousands of images,
and many of us are smiling broadly. Collected, they represent us accurately in
all our moods and modes, so we no longer have to worry about being defined
by one picture. Indeed, unlike Abraham Lincoln, modern US presidents try to
ensure that a number of images are available that will capture the gamut of
their emotional range, from troubled solemnity to enthusiastic joy. The same
goes for the royal families, recorded in either carefree, knockabout moments,
or in stately focus. In the 21st century these figures must be all things to all
people, and all occasions.
Created for Albert.io. Copyright 2016. All rights reserved.
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