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.
There’s a big difference in how we use history. But we’re equally nuts about it. To us, the everyday details of life in the past are things to talk about, ponder, make fun of -- much in the way normal people talk about their favorite reality show.
We talk about who’s wearing what and who’s sleeping with whom. We try to sort out rumor or myth from fact. We thought there must be at least three other people out there who think history’s fascinating and fun, too. This blog is for them.