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The university lecturer, Nicholas Jeeves, suggests that for most of recorded human history, the open smile has been regarded as ‘deeply unfashionable’. Yet nowadays, it seems as if smiling is almost a prerequisite for photographs: it is perceived as a sign of friendliness, happiness or affection.

Whilst you might wonder whether and why Westerners of previous centuries refrained from smiling in painted portraits, the answer is straightforward: nowadays, smiling for a photograph such as a selfie takes mere seconds; on the other hand, sitting for a painted portrait usually took hours. Posing was strenuous and attempting to hold a smile for too long could lead to unfortunate, awkward-looking portraits, with the subjects left baring their teeth in uncomfortable grimaces. As Jeeves writes, ‘a smile is like a blush [..] it is a response, not an expression per se, and so it can neither be easily maintained nor easily recorded’.

One of the few artists who consistently featured smiling subjects in his works was the Italian Renaissance artist, Antonello da Messina. He had trained in the medium of cutting-edge oil painting, which was developed in the Netherlands and which prioritised ‘a direct observation of nature’. By introducing the smile into his painted portraits, Messina sought to present ‘the inner lives of his realistically rendered sitters’.

Although the Dutch continued to be particularly engaged with depicting everyday real life in their artwork, including smiling subjects, by the 17th century, most aristocrats in Europe had declared that baring teeth, both in public and in art, was a crude expression reserved for the lower classes, drunks, and theatrical performers. Yet, almost immediately after the invention of photography during the mid-19th century, the smile became a standard part of the portrait for all classes.

Students applying to study History of Art, as well as those interested in studying Fine Art, can research how painting techniques and methods have evolved over the centuries, such as considering the intricate changes observed in the portrayal of subjects.

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