The Real Reason Few Classic Portraits Featured Smirks

November 13, 2013

Smile! You’re about to be forever immortalized in acrylic, oil, watercolor or any other medium du jour—and as a muse, it’s your job to stay sitting pretty for the artist. Have you ever noticed that, until recent years, few British royals smiled openly enough in their portraits to show teeth? Have you wondered why so many classical paintings featured a smirk instead of an honest grin? The reason why may surprise you.

It’s teeth—well, teeth and vanity. Back in the day, which wasn’t all that long ago, people smile ranch orthodontics mona lisasimply didn’t have access to the kind of dentistry we have today. Would the Mona Lisa have seemed as flirtatious with an open grin? Perhaps not, but if she’d had access to Invisalign and some Zoom whitening, she may have opted for something more than her famous half-smile (and likely would have caused an epic butterfly effect).


The Few, the Proud


Of course, there are always exceptions, such as Jan Steen’s self-portrait in the late 17th century where he showcased his crooked, yellow teeth in all their glory (but artists have always been known for inflated egos). Nowadays, it’s natural that when someone points a camera at you (or a paintbrush), you smile—it’s a natural reflex and your attempt at drumming up a portrait good enough to Instagram. Plus, you’re probably more confident in your teeth than Queen Elizabeth was as a young princess.

The next time you visit your local museum, or if you need an excuse for a first visit, take a closer look at those smiles. People have said that the serious look was more professional, and smiling was unfashionable—but worry over bad teeth is likely a more common culprit than people think. Plus, a smirk breeds a degree of ambiguity that a smile can’t mimic. It can convey flirtation, embarrassment, condescension or anything else the critic can dream up. A smile, on the other hand, doesn’t have as many shades.


The Company You Keep


Of course, it’s also true that if everyone’s teeth weren’t that great, then the “Yale Scale” comes into play. If the majority of people are a five, then you should probably feel pretty good about being a five—whether you’re talking about teeth, body or fashion. But nobody wants to be a five, and that was true even in past centuries. Yes, bad teeth may have been very common, but that doesn’t mean it was accepted and overlooked.

People, and especially women in more traditional times, wanted to be seen as attractive and it’s always been true that healthy teeth are a sign of beauty, health and wealth. Openly smiling may have been frowned upon, and a stoic demeanor may have been the go-to appearance to strive towards—but surely those less than great teeth had something to do with almost a complete lack of teeth in paintings. Even Kate Middleton, ever the trendsetter, stuck with a closed-mouth grin in her official royal painting—missing out on a grand opportunity to buck tradition and show that winning smile. At least there’s always Prince Harry’s girlfriend, Cressida Bonas, to step up to the plate should he pop the question.

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