Smiles Captured On Canvas, On Tin, And In Stone

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The Laughing Cavalier

You can’t help but think of the “Mona Lisa” when asked to name a famous smile. Da Vinci’s portrait has a smile that has captured imagination for centuries. It’s not the only smile in seen through the ages on canvas, stone, and tintype photographs, though. And, while the mediums and eras were different, there are some interesting similarities.

Smiles On Canvas

One well-known example of a smile on canvas is “The Laughing Cavalier”, a painting from the mid 1600’s. The name is a relatively modern title.

This painting is familiar to some because of its adoption by McEwan’s Beer as their logo (with some modifications, of course). There are other paintings in which you’ll see subjects that are smiling; smiles aren’t exactly rare though not overly common. What is rare is seeing teeth in these smiles.

You’ll be hard-pressed to find historical paintings that show teeth. Remember, dental health and care was not like it is today, and most people had a mouthful of teeth they probably didn’t want anyone to see. So, most smiles are closed-mouth smiles.

archaic-250x321Smiles In Stone

Ancient Greek statues are often seen with a rather strange smile, one that seems forced or fake. It’s almost unsettling.

This is what is known as the “archaic smile” and was common as the artists struggled to perfect their skills. They hadn’t figured out how to accurately portray the human form, and so the smile was how they were trying to tell us that their subject had life. As Greek sculpture improved, the forced smile was abandoned as the figures themselves began to exhibit the realism that portrayed life.

It is interesting to note that even though the sculptor could have added teeth and made them look good, most smiles are closed-mouth, just as they are in other art. The most notable exception are the Riace Bronzes, which have teeth made out of silver.

Smiles Through The Lens

Old photographs are startling in that the subject is very rarely seen smiling. They seem completely unfriendly, almost scowling. Why?

Once again, part of the issue was likely that, due to poor dental health, most people didn’t want to show their teeth. Another reason, though, has to do with the way photographs were taken and how common they were. It was very expensive to have a portrait taken, and it is likely that these were seen as a time to be formal and solemn, not laughing or smiling. The photographic process meant sitting still for up to 15 minutes (in the early 1800’s) and, as time improved, up to one or to minutes. Try sitting without moving, holding a smile on your face, for that amount of time! We smile for photographs now, perhaps because they are quick and common.

It is interesting to consider the impact something as simple as a smile has not only on our own personal outlook on life and how we perceive others, but how it shows up in the art and imagery from previous centuries. The archaic smile, in particular, makes a strong statement: a smile indicates life.