A trend among early European paintings is that they often featured non-smiling subjects or subtle smiles sans teeth.
Did people have no reason to smile in Victorian times? Did Mona Lisa hide a mouth full of cavities behind her smirk?
Here’s a short summary of smiles in art history:
- Although the Renaissance is known for innovations in science and the arts, modern dentistry was still in its infancy. Drab dental hygiene was common, and some subjects were embarrassed of their teeth.
- Portraits could take hours or even days to complete, requiring subjects to sit still for extended periods of time. You try holding a smile for that long!
- For many belonging to the elite class, showing teeth defied decorum. Smiling was believed to be reserved for peasants, drunks or children. It was otherwise seen as a breach of etiquette.
- While we didn’t see many teeth in Renaissance portraits, artists did draw them! Leonardo da Vinci would often sketch teeth for scientific study, and was the first to note the difference between premolars and molars.
- Some artists did choose to paint teeth and smiles. A prime example is Caravaggio, who was known to push societal boundaries. Dutch painters from the 17th Century also depicted smiles and laughter by exploring candid moments of everyday people.