Did the French monarchy end not with a bang—or a whimper—but a smile?
In the fall of 1787, the art establishment—and by extension Paris—found itself shaken by a self-portrait hung in the Louvre by Elizabeth-Louise Vigée Le Brun. Her sin? The smile depicted on her visage was not of the accepted tight-lipped, subtle variety (think Mona Lisa), but rather portrayed her with mouth ajar, revealing—GASP—her pearly whites.
The Smile Revolution in Eighteenth Century Paris by Colin Jones sets out to show how this seemingly innocuous painting was so disruptive and subversive in a France on the cusp of the Ancient Regime’s demise.
In his smart, yet funny, book, Jones contends that the combination of a sea change in intellectual circles about the meaning of the smile along with a revolution in modern dentistry—which was centered in Paris—put teeth at the center of French culture in the monarchy’s final years.
Smiles, or lack thereof, did not bring down the Ancient Regime, of course. What the struggle over the appropriate smile did represent, however, was an increasingly out-of-touch court in Versailles clinging to visions of how things should be, and determined to stamp out anything popular among the masses.
Jones’s story of the smile’s cultural importance in France begins with the somber portrait of Louis XIV by Hyacinthe Rigaud in 1701. The portrait captures the court’s belief that a straight face was the ideal. Despite being one of the most powerful men in the world, the king looks miserable.
The harshness in Rigaud’s portrait fit with the guidelines established by Premier Painter of the King, Charles le Brun, in his Conference sure l’expression. Due to its author’s position in society, this work essentially laid down the country’s artistic ground rules. It outlined approved facial expressions based on accepted ideas going “back to antiquity and also to theoretical works on the subject since the Renaissance by Alberti, Lomazzo, Leonardo da Vinci, and others.” It also promoted physiognomy, which argues that the bodily features represent characteristics of the person (Jones gives the example of red hair meaning the sitter is short-tempered). In addition, le Brun followed the Descartes school of thought that argued that the face represented the soul, and thus a tranquil look which emphasized the eyes, and not one that focused on the mouth, was desirable.
If one’s mouth was shown open, one had better be in the throes of passion; if you were showing teeth, you were a peasant or insane.
This theoretical demarcation found in Rigaud’s portrait of the king was reinforced, Jones argues, by the abysmal state of dentistry. In the portrait, the king’s sucked cheeks and crinkled mouth reveal a widely known fact—the king was, literally, toothless. Dentistry at that point was essentially a charlatan’s game, with the solution to tooth problems being either to pull the offender out or to take a quack’s cure-all medicine. Men and women of high status reeked of bad breath, were in constant pain due to oral infections, and were often missing most teeth.
And if the king cannot, or will not smile—the same goes for the court. Jones backs up this assertion about the king’s influence with a delightful tale of how, after Louis had an operation to deal with an anal fistula, “the condition of having an anal fistula became straight away ‘very fashionable’,” and 30 courtiers asked the royal surgeon for the procedure even without needing it.
Facial impassivity, Jones contends, was essential at Versailles, where the new fashion of the clean-shaven face revealed all, and the le fard style of white face paint reinforced the necessity of a serious expression, especially since a wayward smile risked the mask cracking.
This mindset was reflected to the wider society through popular literature. The court’s aversion to the smile and laughter was a result of its move away from the Rabelaisian humor of farting, bawdy jokes, and guffawing masses. Under the Sun King, such humor—and the laughter associated with it—was seen as more suitable for the masses. Influential thinkers like Jean Baptiste de La Salle, founder of the Christian Brothers, argued specifically that baring of the teeth during laughter was “absolutely against decency.” The “new civility” promoted by Antoine Courtin expected the mouth to be kept shut when smiling. The Counter-Reformation Catholic Church’s stance was best exemplified, Jones notes, by Ignatius of Loyola’s simple view: “Don’t laugh.”
Having ably established the dangers of the smile under Louis XIV, a precept which continued under Louis XV with a brief interlude during the Regency, Jones is faced with the uphill task of demonstrating how everything changed and it became so revolutionary to smile. Part of the problem is that its prevalence was equally as fleeting as a smile itself. The smile’s breakthrough in 1787 would only last for a few years, after which the joy in Paris dissipated in the Terror, and gravity in painting returned as the new leaders’ preferences tended towards the dramatic works of artists like Jacques-Louis David.
At the heart of the smile’s power was that it represented the split between Versailles and Paris. As Versailles continued its somber courtly rituals, Paris found itself in laughter and tears over Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa and Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Julie ou la Nouvelle Héloïse. In both cases, the populace found themselves overwrought with emotion upon reading the novels’ finales in which the female protagonist smiles even on her deathbed. The “smile through tears” had replaced the previous mindset that laughing was for the poor. It had also overturned the school of thought exemplified by le Brun so that now “it was the mouth” that “emblematized spirituality and the higher emotions.”
The second major split between the capital and the court occurred over oral care. While Louis XV continued the Bourbon family tradition of abysmal oral maintenance, Paris found itself at the world’s center of modern dentistry. Men like Pierre Fauchard shook up the industry, transforming the practice from one run by street performers to one of individuals who published large medical texts describing pathology, symptoms, and procedures and who also made gargantuan sums of money. When this was combined with the development of porcelain teeth by Nicholas Dubois de Chemant, the white smile became one of the most essential physical attributes in Paris. “The golden age of Parisian smiles nurtured, and was nurtured by, the rise of dentistry as a vocation,” writes Jones.
As fascinating as its battle for relevance is, the smile did go out of fashion faster than a society doyenne could flash her chompers in disdain at an arriviste. But in The Smile Revolution, the movement gets a second shot at having its moment in the sun.