You’ll be glad to know this letter has nothing to do with not talking about your art. It has to do with the business of painting people with their mouths closed. While a toothy smile may suggest desirable qualities like a happy nature and a sense of humour, in painted portraits it may not be such a good idea.
We need look no further than George Washington for this convention. In 1789, when Washington was 57 and inaugurated as president of the U.S., he had only one of his original teeth left. The late Dr. Reidar F. Sognnaes was a scholar in the field of oral pathology at the University of California School of Dentistry in Los Angeles. “In the good old days, teeth were lousy,” said Dr. Sognnaes. “Washington suffered such dental agony that he hardly ever laughed through his two terms. He could not pronounce lengthy words or words with “S” sounds, and he was able to eat only soft foods.”
When you look at the work of the great portraitists of old — Gainsborough, Rembrandt, John Singleton Copley, John Singer Sargent and Gilbert Stuart, who painted Washington, there’s nary a tooth to be seen. Stuart’s lifetime oeuvre, for example, seems a paean to lockjaw. Goodness knows the condition of bicuspids in Renaissance Italy. Can you imagine Mona Lisa with a toothy grin?
In the history of portraiture, a few exceptions can be seen. Velasquez and Franz Hals painted jesters and stupid people with open mouths.
To this day most portraitists generally keep their subjects in the closed position. There may be a message in this.
“Smile,” “Whiskey,” “Cheese,” and other mouthy encouragements are calls reserved for photographers, except in the case of rock musicians where it’s important for people to think rock’s a serious business. Fact is, if you paint a picture of someone with a smile, it’s almost a sure sign it was copied from a photo. If you do try painting an openmouthed sitter over an extended time, she’ll dry out on you and you’ll start to get an irked look that’s less than flattering. On the other hand, if your idea is to make people look irked, by all means insist that they smile.
PS: “A portrait is a painting of a person with something wrong with the mouth.” (John Singer Sargent)
Esoterica: If you do paint teeth, you may need to gloss them over and blur them a bit. Portraits don’t usually look so hot when the teeth are painstakingly correct. For some reason carefully delineated teeth tend to look like false teeth. False teeth from Dr Sognnaes’ collection are on display at UCLA. In the good old days the rich and famous had teeth made from the darnedest things. George’s included carvings from elephant and walrus tusks as well as the teeth of cows, hippos, and people. Apparently a difficult mouth to fit, some of his teeth had to be held in place with springs. Contrary to popular belief, none of George’s teeth were made out of wood. The wooden ones were reserved for senators and congressmen.
The closed-mouth convention
Prolonged agony in the chair
by Angela Sheard, France
Only yesterday, I was looking at a painting of a young girl running down a staircase and out of sight, seen from behind. Flowing, flying, back view hair so much easier than a face. One lively leg still on the last stair while the other had already skipped out of sight so much easier than fitting on two in lifelike order! But now I know why so many pictures of the Queen (the English one) look grim and tightlipped. They must have asked her Maj to smile and she just couldn’t keep it up over five sittings!
So Mona Lisa’s enigmatic smile has nothing to do with an interior secret but more to do with keeping rotted stumps of teeth in her jaw.
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by Stan Munn, Calgary, AB, Canada
Last weekend we visited the McMichael in Kleinberg, Ontario, to see the ‘Painting Canada’ show and whilst there, took in the photographic portraiture exhibit of Sir Cecil Beaton’s work with Queen Elizabeth and the Royal Family, from his earliest work with them during the war to Sir Cecil’s death in 1980. Sir Cecil attempted to create photographic portraits that reflected traditional painted portraiture values rather than ‘modern’ photographic properties. It was interesting and amusing to see early Royal portraiture set against an elaborate rococo background provided by a detail of Jean-Honore Fragonard’s The Swing, a captivating, naughty painting of the 18th century. The painting depicts a woman on a swing, being pushed by her elderly husband who is clearly unaware that her young lover is watching from the undergrowth. No mention of this little bit of cheekiness in the Beaton photography show. One has to know the background image to realize the rest. None of this detracts from Beaton’s work, which was beautifully done, teeth or no teeth.
The photographic curse
by Sharon Knettell, Woonsocket, RI, USA
A smile on a portrait leaves one impression — while a closed mouth leaves many. Most people, perhaps,are more interesting until they open their mouths.
I did portraits for the briefest of times — the reasons I left were the constant whine, “Can’t you make it smiling?” and the lack of access to the client and being stuck with a photo to paint from for weeks on end. We are slaves to the ubiquity of the photographic image in our culture; ravishing models, actors and actresses with open-mouthed smiles living radiantly joyful vodka-aided lives or rim-lit giggling romping well-provided-for children. These are the images that pervade our culture as the proper way to portray humans. This is what the client sees, not the masterpieces in the museums – many people today are art illiterate. What is the modern portraitist to do? How can he or she compete? This is what the client wants and expects. Many artists, looking at the rent bill, accommodate. Cheese!
Artists did work for commissions in the past, but today the photographic image used as an aid to modern portraiture is more a curse than a boon.
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by Dr. Ralph Hislop, Maple Ridge, BC, Canada
Your references to George Washington’s famous, teeth as well as to other dental memorabilia, have enticed me to put pen to paper (well, two index fingers to keyboard).
I think that we all may recall having seen similar portraits of Good Queen Bess in our childhood history books. Apparently she and subsequent British rulers were subject to annual portraits which were, reportedly, very accurate in anatomical detail. Such portraits are still in existence and some years ago an American dentist with an interest in history was permitted to examine the portraits of Elizabeth 1st. He arranged them side by side in chronological order and was able to measure what dentists call “loss of vertical dimension” by measuring how the tip of the nose gradually came closer to the tip of the chin over a period of years. (This happens to us with the loss of all or most of the back teeth. Another result is the hollowing of the cheeks.) Apparently these observations jived with documented reports of the queen being a big sweet eater and having had multiple extractions over the years… They say that the camera never lies. Apparently also true also of portrait artists.
Dental hygiene impacts portraiture
by Brenda Behr, Goldsboro, NC, USA
Phooey! Yesterday I added my signature to a painting that includes four sets of teeth. And yes, obviously, the painting was done from a photo. I don’t believe all portraits need to be done in the classical sense. With the invention of electricity, was there argument that light from a window or candlelight was superior to gas or electric light? As a painter who much prefers to paint en plein air, I appreciate the advantages of painting from life, be it human or landscape. Nevertheless, my circumstances do not always allow me the luxury to say to my prospective customers, “My way or the highway.” Additionally, I’ve done enough portraits from life to know that expressions gone sour are not limited to those models attempting to hold their smiles. Perhaps future museum goers will conclude in generations to come that dental hygiene in later centuries made an impact on the art of portraiture.
by Victor Lunn-Rockliffe, London, England
Apart from the practicalities of keeping a mouth open in a set position I believe there may be a deeper reason for the convention: simply that a face with a closed mouth tends to be perceived as more beautiful, serene and healthy — and that there is a scientific explanation of why this may be so.
A while back I did an illustration for a poster of a collection of faces with a blissful expression, as achieved, for example, in meditation. The faces were of different ages and ethnic origins but all shared the common feature of having their mouth closed. I simply couldn’t find good examples of calm and serene faces with the mouth open. Some smiling or laughing faces with open mouths get quite close but the more open the mouth the less the feeling of calmness and serenity.
I learnt that a possible explanation of why serenity is associated with a closed mouth is to be found in the health consequences of breathing too much. George Caitlin wrote a fascinating short book in 1881 called Shut your Mouth and Save your Life. George Caitlin had travelled around North America in pioneering spirit and had been greatly struck by how healthy the North American Indians were in contrast to the so called civilization he belonged to. He noticed that the Indians always kept their mouths closed and indeed the mothers would make sure that their babies slept with their mouths closed. Caitlin contrasts the Indians’ habits with those who keep their mouths open, who tend to be unhealthy and out of sorts. He illustrated his book himself with pen drawings which very graphically underline his point that it’s bad for health to breathe through the mouth.
Before Caitlin, classical Yoga texts extol the virtues of holding the breath and there have been many modern studies (especially the work of the Russian scientist Buteyko) of the impact on health of chronic hyperventilation. All have shown that breathing too much can make you ill. Chronic Hyper ventilators tend to breathe through the mouth, as it’s much harder to breathe too much through the nose. Just look around in a Doctors waiting room. It’s likely most people will be breathing heavily through their mouths. My guess is that the physiological facts may be driving an instinctive aversion for faces with open mouths.
(RG note) Thanks, Victor. Current thought on Caitlin’s premise is that those who breathe through their mouths do so because they are stuffed up. Stuffy noses often indicate congestive conditions resulting from chronic colds, influenza, TB, emphysema and other lung disorders that tend to bring about an early death. Further, with regard to North American Indians, their life expectancy in those days was even shorter than the rootin-tootin gunslingers who only got stuffed up when they bit the dust.
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by Podi Lawrence, UK
It may be a fact that people had bad or missing teeth and it became traditional to not have a smile. Additionally it is almost impossible for a sitter to keep a smile on for up to 2-3 hours. However, one doesn’t want a pained expression, so the time a model has to sit still is limited. I limit to approximately 20 minutes (although I find it difficult when I am locked in) and then a break, with sittings lasting up to 2 hours. I always ask my sitters to think of pleasant thoughts, perhaps a moment when they were having a happy experience! I usually have some pleasant music playing in the background. Additionally, a mirror placed so they can keep an eye on themselves and their pose often helps them to keep that happy look.
I have only twice found it necessary to paint the sitter with an open mouth, albeit slightly, due to the nature of their personality. Needless to say, in both cases the paintings were done from life over a period of time and I did take photographs.
The first is an older gentleman from Panama whose one front tooth was Gold. The second was of Sir Ian Gainsford — retired Dean of Kings’ College London, Dentistry Department, who was known for the gap in between his front teeth.
The camera is a noble tool
by Makiwa Mutomba, Pretoria, South Africa
I disagree with you on this one. You seem to look down on both artists who paint from photographs as well as photographers. Painting from photographs is not ‘copying photographs.’ You are right in saying that most portraitists generally avoid teeth, but that does not make it right. Representational art should be about being true to one’s vision as an artist; beauty lies in telling the truth. A smile with missing teeth or braces is beautiful if painted correctly, with the correct values in the right places. I know this can be a problem for portraitists, who insist on painting from life, because smiles are fleeting gestures only a camera can capture. And despite the purists’ view to the contrary, a camera is a noble tool just like a paintbrush or a sketchpad. And there is an Art involved in photography. The problem is that everybody who owns a camera thinks they are a photographer, and most people think photography is just “smile… click, click.” Like Henri Cartier Bresson, I use my camera as an “instant sketchpad” to capture those fleeting smiles. I paint teeth all the time and I have never had a problem with them. In fact, I never think about them. Like the nose and eyes, I “forget” about them when I paint and think of only value and color and the bigger picture. While I sympathize with portraitists as they sometimes have to go against their conviction to impress their sitters, they should strive in their other work to tell the truth.
(RG note) Thanks, Makiwa. Needless to say we were inundated with open mouths: Here are a few:
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Enjoy the past comments below for The closed-mouth convention…
Dogs Heading East
oil painting, 20 x 20 inches
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2013.
That includes Louise Francke of North Carolina, USA, who wrote, “Painting the teeth makes people look like Cheshire Cats. In animals it’s a different tail.”