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Reviewed by Harriet 

I must admit I was initially drawn to this book by the lovely painting on the cover, a self-portrait by the great French artist Élisabeth-Louise Vigée Lebrun. The title sounded intriguing too, and so did the blurb:

For centuries, the art of smiling was, quite literally, frowned upon by the people of Western Europe. This all changed during the ‘smile revolution’ in eighteenth-century Paris, introducing a facial expression that now lies at the heart of western civilization. This is the story of how – and why – that revolution began. It’s the story of how we first learned to smile.

In fact it turns out that the Vigée Lebrun self-portrait is not just there for decoration. It is indeed central to Colin Jones’s compelling argument. Painted in 1787 and displayed at the prestigious Paris Salon, the picture, or rather the smile in the picture, caused a scandal. As one journalist wrote,

An affectation which artists, connoisseurs and people of good taste are unanimous in condemning, and of which no example is found in Antiquity, is that in smiling, Madame Vigée Lebrun shows her teeth.

Why this should have caused so much consternation is the subject of this delightful book. Writing with a combination of impressive learning and entertaining wit, Colin Jones proceeds to show that the smile was a cultural product of eighteenth-century Paris, and one that he explores through an examination of a number of contexts, including social, economic, political and medical history.

You may never have wondered why the celebrated portraits of the royalty and aristocracy of France’s Old Regime are invariably serious and unsmiling. Colin Jones points to Hyacinthe Rigaud’s 1701 portrait of the aging Louis XIV, magnificent in his state robes, gazing disdainfully at his viewers. However, close examination reveals that his face tells another story: hollow cheeks and wrinkled mouth reveal a ruler without a tooth in his head. Louis was not alone in this. With competent dentistry still well in the future, it was almost unheard of to reach even middle age with any teeth remaining at all. Naturally enough, then, this helps to explain the serious faces in portraits of this era – if you’re toothless, the last thing you want to do is smile. Or at least, smile with an open mouth. The French aristocracy were given to haughty, disdainful smirks, the opposite of the joyful, friendly grins which could undoubtedly still be seen on the faces of the lower classes. For smiling was also a social marker, and though a smile can certainly be seen in some portraits from as early as the sixteenth century, it’s always on the face of a peasant, or even someone who has lost their reason.

Although several factors contributed to the change that took place throughout the eighteenth century, the development of dentistry certainly played a large part. In an entertaining chapter, Cometh the Dentist, Colin Jones traces the growth of the art from the primitive tooth-pullers of the early part of the century to the highly sophisticated and skilled chirurgiens dentists (dental surgeons) who were flourishing not many decades later. The most famous of the early practitioners, the magnificently tall and gorgeously dressed Le Grand Thomas, had a stall on the Pont Neuf in Paris on which he not only extracted teeth but also entertained the public with a troupe of Savoyard musicians. In complete contrast was the famous dental surgeon Pierre Fauchard, whose ground-breaking practice focused on dental health – preserving teeth rather than pulling them out. Fauchard’s practice, and his books, paved the way for many successors in the coming years.

At the same time, an important change was taking place in eighteenth-century culture with the rise of what came to be called the cult of sensibility. Sensibility, as defined by the French philosopher Diderot, was the vivid effect on our soul of an infinity of delicate observations. Put in more modern terms, it was the ability to be moved by one’s emotions, whether sad or joyful – or indeed both, as in the newly fashionable practice of smiling though your tears. Exemplified in the writings of the English novelist Samuel Richardson and his slightly later admirer Jean-Jacques Rousseau, both heroes and heroines smiled the morally uplifting ‘smile of the soul’, now seen as sweet and virtuous. The newly permissible, and indeed much admired, habit of smiling, together with the fact that dentistry in Paris had developed so much that people were travelling from all over the world to make use of the services of the highly skilled French dentist, meant that smiling, open-mouthed portraits such as that of Vigée Lebrun became more and more usual in the final decades of the eighteenth century.

You might think that all was smooth sailing for the smile from that point on. But things began to change again with the advent of the French Revolution in 1789. Certainly at first this massive cultural and political change was greeted with broad smiles and much exalting laughter. But the rise of Robespierre and the Reign of Terror, you might say, wiped the smiles from most peoples’ faces. In fact smiling reverted to its earlier signification, being seen mainly on the faces of aristocrats, mounting bravely to the scaffold with smiles of disdain or calm acceptance, demonstrating their superiority to the common crowd watching from below. And once the smile disappeared, it took a long time to re-emerge. It was not until the early twentieth century, when camera technology had developed to the point where the sitter no longer had to stay still for up to fifteen minutes, and when film studios started producing attractive images of their stars, that a natural smile in a portrait became acceptable again. Nowadays, of course, not smiling in a photo seems almost odd. But is the smile here to stay?

As you can probably tell, I enjoyed this book enormously. It’s rare to be able to describe a non-fiction book as a page-turner, but that’s really what it was for me. Entertaining and informative — what more can you want?

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Harriet Devine is one of the editors of Shiny New Books, and doesn’t much like smiling in photographs.

Colin Jones, The Smile Revolution (Oxford University Press, Oxford: 2014). 978019871518, 231pp., hardback.

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