Wednesday, December 3, 2014

The Revolutionary Smile of Mme. Vigée-LeBrun, 1786

Wednesday, December 3, 2014
Isabella reporting,


It's a simple, single-word command, one that's launched countless photo shoots and selfies. Smile, and the world smiles with you. In modern America, straight, white teeth are considered the sure ticket to success in every aspect of life, with a smile to lead the way.

It wasn't always so. In the past, limited diets and primitive dental hygiene made decay and missing teeth commonplace. A wide, toothy smile in an adult was considered vulgar and ill-bred, even a sign of wantonness or madness. Ladies and gentleman smiled with their lips together, hiding their teeth. Few Western portraits show a smiling subject, and rarer still are smiles with teeth.

But by the end of the 18th c., this was slowly beginning to change. As in so many things, Paris led the way, becoming the leader in producing toothbrushes, tooth-powders, mouth deodorants, and porcelain false teeth. Yet in 1787, when artist Élisabeth-Louise Vigée-LeBrun exhibited the charming self-portrait with her daughter, above, the polite world was shocked. Why? Because she had painted herself with a smile that showed her teeth.

The Mémoires secrets, a popular gossip-sheet, noted that "An affectation which artists, art lovers, and persons of taste have been united in condemning, and which finds no precedent among the ancients, is that in smiling, [Mme. Vigée-LeBrun] shows her teeth....This affectation is particularly out of place in a mother."

Mme. Vigée-LeBrun did not agree. She was a popular artist in court circles, and the favorite portraitist of Queen Marie-Antoinette. She had an attractive smile herself (or at least she painted it that way), and she must have believed that a happy smile was entirely appropriate for a mother and child, and for a successful artist as well. She painted herself several more times with her teeth showing - the self-portrait, right, dates from 1787 – and today these portraits seem modern and fresh because of those revolutionary smiles.

Above left: Mme. Vigée-LeBrun et sa fille, Jeanne-Lucie, dite Julie, by Élisabeth-Louise Vigée-LeBrun, 1786, The Louvre.
Below right: Self-Portrait, by Élisabeth-Louise Vigée-LeBrun, 1787, Fyvie Castle, Scotland.


Yve said...

In the UK wide toothy smiles, particularly un-naturally even and white ones, are still seen as a "lower class" thing! ;o) Cosmetic dentistry is something people from Essex and showbiz types go in for but the landed gentry still have smiles that wouldn't look out of place in the stable yard. That's one of the few things we have in common with our European cousins, snuggle teeth in every shade from off-white to brown.

BTW, There is a strong suspicion that Kate Middleton had her teeth whitened "for the American market" too!

Yve said...

I meant "Snaggle teeth" but Snuggle teeth sounds nice! ;o)

Isabella Bradford/Susan Holloway Scott said...

Hah, Yve, I like "snuggle teeth" too.

The "American smile" is nothing new. My parents (classic Californians) lived in France in the 1950s, and they said they instantly stood out wherever they went because they were much taller than the French, and because they had big American smiles.

I wonder why as a country we place such a premium on dental perfection in our smiles? Is it unconsciously perceived as a sign of good health, Hollywood-style glamor, or is it some ancient sign of aggression?

The Bohemian Belle said...

So what if someone natuarally had good teeth? I'm very lucky I have nice teeth and never had any dental work other than a couple of fillings, so I assume ther where lucky people like that in the past.

Lillian Marek said...

Yesterday I was wondering when toothbrushes turn up, and here you are, telling me! Thank you.

mq, cb said...

I'm currently reading The Smile Revolution by Colin Jones on precisely this subject - brilliant book and well worth trying out if you're interested in the subject.

Isabella Bradford/Susan Holloway Scott said...

Mq,cb - Thanks for letting me know about the Colin Jones book - it was just released in America last week! Fortuitous timing, for I've had this idea on my "future blogs" for quite a while. Must read this book now....:)

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