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When a camera is produced and we are asked to smile, we perform gamely.But should the process take too long, it takes only a fraction of a moment for our smiles to turn into uncomfortable grimaces.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.
But in the long history of portraiture the open smile has been largely, as it were, frowned upon.
In Charles Dickens’ …People are so dissatisfied and unreasonable, that, nine times out of ten, there’s no pleasure in painting them.
Suddenly the picture would be ‘about’ the open smile, and this is almost never what an artist, or a paying subject, wanted.
In this sense, a portrait was never so much a record of a person, but a formalised ideal.
An open smile, however, is unequivocal, a signal moment of unselfconsciousness.
Such is the field upon which the mouth in portraiture has been debated: an ongoing conflict between the serious and the smirk.
The ambition was not to capture a moment, but a moral certainty. For a more modern, photographic example of the principle, we may consider Abraham Lincoln.
Here was a man better known than most, in his day, for his sense of humour, there being a number of well-known stories about him regularly drawing hoots of laughter from those in his company.
Sometimes they say, “Oh, how very serious you have made me look, Miss La Creevy!
” and at others, “La, Miss La Creevy, how very smirking! In fact, there are only two styles of portrait painting; the serious and the smirk; and we always use the serious for professional people (except actors sometimes), and the smirk for private ladies and gentlemen who don’t care so much about looking clever.