Why Didn't People Smile in Old Portraits?

Before technology made snapshots possible, only drunkards and sex gods could grin.
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Let's play a short, highly contrived game, called called "Smile or Grimace?"

Here's Major General Samuel P. Heintzelman, an officer of the Federal Army, photographed during the war:

Library of Congress

He looks pretty dour. Grimace.

Here's another major general, Gordon Granger, also of the Federal Army, also photographed during the war:

Library of Congress

Oh, Gordon. What a frown you have on. Grimace.

This isn't going well. What happens if we looked after the war, and looked at civilians? Would that search yield some happier portraiture?

Mark Twain, for instance. He's a funny man. How about him?

Library of Congress

Sam, dude. You're rocking some Spock-style eyebrows, but you don't exactly look overjoyed.

All of these photos are by Matthew Brady, a pioneer in photojournalism, and -- in terms of his sheer ubiquity -- a sort of Platon for the late 19th century. His century wasn't known for its smiling portrait subjects. I'd long thought that photographic technology had imposed that constraint: It's harder to hold a smile than a grimace or smirk, and early film simply took longer to expose than people could hold an expression. Smile in a portrait and you'd wind up with a beautiful buccal blur.

But an article by Nicholas Jeeves, recently published in the Public Domain Review, suggests that, when folks frowned, they did so for reasons as economic, social and historical as they were technological.

Mark Twain thought as much. In one of his letters, collected by Jeeves, he wrote:

A photograph is a most important document, and there is nothing more damning to go down to posterity than a silly, foolish smile caught and fixed forever.

Twain wasn't the only believer in the idiocy of the style. Look back at painted portraiture -- the tradition photography inherited -- and you'll rarely see a grinning subject. This is, in fact, Jeeves's subject. "By the 17th century in Europe," he writes, "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."

Indeed, not only were smiles of the middling sort, they breached propriety. In 1703, one French writer lamented "people who raise their upper lip so high... that their teeth are almost entirely visible." Not only was this discourteous, he asked: Why do it at all? After all, "nature gave us lips to conceal them."

Portraits represented an ideal. It's easy to mock them -- they were the profile pictures of the aristocracy, in a sort of way -- but they were crucial, tied to mortality, a method of preserving a person's visage and affect. Jeeves puts it well: "The ambition [with portraiture] was not to capture a moment, but a moral certainty." Subjects never looked exactly like their picture, yet their portraits were how they appeared. Portraits had permanence. You did not want to commit a permanent faux pas

So where Jeeves finds smiles in portraiture, they indicate transgression. When Carvaggio painted Eros as an adolescent boy, he depicted the ideal as destructive, dimpled and delighted.

But sometimes smiling indicates experimentation or entertainment -- those low-class figures who were allowed to smile. Judith Leyster's Jolly Toper, for example, shows a joyous, debauched man, drink held aloft.

This last painting -- this plump, gregarious man -- it struck me. It looks like a bad Photoshop job. It looks like a botched anachronism. The man's tunic, hat and vessel look early modern, but his face looks like a caricature from the 20th century. I half-expected him to be some 1940s character actor, a face grafted onto a 1620s body.

I think it has to do with his smile. You don't see smiles like that in portraits: You see them after the rise of film, after Muybridge experimented with animation and first captured a subject in motion, after we applied that innovation to art and the human form. I'm used to seeing smiles, now, of course. Thank Mark Zuckerberg, Edwin Land, and Eastman Kodak for that. I'm used to seeing smiling jesters and portly kinds, too -- as long as they were depictions of a recent vintage.

But I'm not used to seeing smiling subjects set in the past to be, truly, envoys from and creations of the past. Without ever planning it, smiles became little historical wayfinding aids: A big, happy, drunk dude like this, his face like a stylized photograph, has to be post-1900. The jolly grin on the jolly topper's face had become a bad blaze, a false cairn.

The smile: Enabled by culture and technology, it's a little landmark, a signpost only noticed when it leads astray.

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Robinson Meyer is an associate editor at The Atlantic, where he covers technology.

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