Why Are Smiles so Rare in Art History?

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For many, the museum presents a foreboding experience, a sacred temple that is uninviting to those unwilling to embrace the solemnity that viewing “great art” requires. Perhaps it’s not the classical columns or imposing marble staircases that create an aura of pompous seriousness. Walking down those grand halls among hundreds of years of masterpieces, there’s rarely a face smiling out at you.

For most of recorded human history, the open smile has been “deeply unfashionable,” observes writer Nicholas Jeeves in his essay “The Serious and the Smirk: The Smile in Portraiture.” Today, we perceive smiling as an indication of friendliness, happiness, or affection. It’s a prerequisite for photographs. We might at first think that Westerners of centuries past refrained from smiling for portraits to avoid showing off their bad teeth. In fact, poor dental hygiene was so common that it wasn’t considered a detractor of attractiveness.

The answer is far more simple: These days, smiling for a selfie takes mere seconds. Sitting for a painted portrait, on the other hand, took hours. Posing was strenuous business. We all know what it’s like to hold a smile for too long—the end of the camera roll shows us with our teeth bared in uncomfortable grimaces. “A smile is like a blush,” Jeeves writes—“it is a response, not an expression per se, and so it can neither be easily maintained nor easily recorded.”

If a painter did manage to convince his subject to be portrayed mid-smile, the resulting portrait would be immediately perceived as radical—the smile would become the focus of the picture, rarely what a paying subject might wish for. The Italian Renaissance artist Antonello da Messina was one of the few to consistently return to the smile in his work. Messina was trained in the cutting-edge oil painting techniques developed in the Netherlands, which prioritized a direct observation of nature. He introduced the smile into his portrait paintings to indicate the inner lives of his realistically rendered sitters. His Portrait of a Young Man from about 1470 far predates Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa (ca. 1503–19), long considered the owner of the most enigmatic smile in art.

Who knows how Leonardo persuaded the Mona Lisa to smile; her tight-lipped expression was probably quite difficult to maintain. The sfumato-induced ambiguity of its meaning speaks to the larger debate about the mouth in portraiture: “an ongoing conflict between the serious and the smirk,” Jeeves writes. Does La Joconde offer her viewers a coquettish invitation or leering contempt? I’d argue that Leonardo’s greatest smile actually appears in his St. John the Baptist (ca. 1513–16), which is a rather disconcerting picture. Indeed, St. John’s knowing smirk is a much more common phenomenon in the history of Western art.

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