Saturday Culture / Art is Smart

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The Serious and the Smirk: The Smile in Portraiture

Antonello da Messina Portrait of a Man Oil on panel, 12-14 x 9-5/8 in (31x 24.5 cm) Museo della Fondazione Culturale Mandralisca, Cefalu (Palermo)

 

Antonello da Messina’s Portrait of a Man (ca.1475)

Why do we so seldom see people smiling in painted portraits? Nicholas Jeeves explores the history of the smile through the ages of portraiture, from Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa to Alexander Gardner’s photographs of Abraham Lincoln.

Smiling also has a large number of discrete cultural and historical significances, few of them in line with our modern perceptions of it being a physical signal of warmth, enjoyment, or indeed of happiness. (So much for the cross-cultural absolutist concept of psychological “normality”) 

By the 17th century in Europe it was a well-established fact that the only people who smiled broadly, in life and in art, were the poor, the lewd, the drunk, the innocent, and the entertainment – some of whom we’ll visit later. Showing the teeth was for the upper classes a more-or-less formal breach of etiquette. St. Jean-Baptiste De La Salle, in The Rules of Christian Decorum and Civility of 1703, wrote:

There are some people who raise their upper lip so high… that their teeth are almost entirely visible. This is entirely contradictory to decorum, which forbids you to allow your teeth to be uncovered, since nature gave us lips to conceal them.

Thus the critical point: should a painter have persuaded his sitter to smile, and chosen to paint it, it would immediately radicalise the portrait, precisely because it was so unusual and so undesirable. Suddenly the picture would be ‘about’ the open smile, and this is almost never what an artist, or a paying subject, wanted.

Continued: http://publicdomainreview.org Wonderful Site!!

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I used to pour over big art books as a child looking for people who appeared to be “modern” If she were wearing a T-shirt and jeans, this girl / woman would fit into any college campus in the U.S.  

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