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Your Teeth Are Showing

To the Editors:

The opening page of Sanford Schwartz’s essay on the English Pre-Raphaelites [NYR, February 8] credits them with three firsts:

(1) “It’s in certain Pre-Raphaelite pictures that we seem to get our first glimpse of how life had become pressurized with the Industrial Revolution.”

(2) “There are sour-sharp colors in Pre-Raphaelite painting that seemingly appear in the art of no other era.”

(3) “He [Ford Madox Brown, at upper left in The Last of England, 1852–1855] seems to be showing teeth for the first time in European painting.”

The seeming firsts observed by Mr. Schwartz in quotes 1 and 2 are too misty to get a grip on. But the alleged failure of European painting before 1850 to depict teeth—until one brave Englishman pioneered past the lips—this charge at least may be checked.

No earlier showings? From among some art books I keep around, I pulled down a monograph on Pisanello (1395–1455), scoring ten instant hits, including the famous Saint George fresco in Verona. Thus encouraged, I scanned Mantegna (d. 1506) and registered twenty-three: a teething Christ Child, singing angels full-grown and small, bucktoothed seagods, shepherds and executioners with rotting teeth, two Saint Sebastians, Holofernes’ severed head with dentition intact; perfect chiclets in the mouth of a Moor, a Marquis, a Sibyl; and, finally, proving the range of Mantegna’s attention to oral hygiene, a hermit Jerome with a lone fang in the mandible and a Risen Christ (Copenhagen) displaying uppers and lowers complete. High Renaissance teeth flash in dozens of Leonardo drawings—and coyly between the lips of Michelangelo’s Delphic Sibyl (Sistine Ceiling).

Warming to the task and picking at random, I found Beccafumi (1486–1551) yielding thirteen cases of dental exposure; looked north and found Lucas van Leyden riding the familiar theme of the tooth-pulling surgeon and pinning a toothy snarl on a King Saul disgruntled by David’s harping. And so on and on through Bruegel, Carracci, the seventeenth century, and beyond—you never saw such a procession of refutational teeth; until, a half-hour wasted, I closed registration at Hogarth’s delicious Shrimp Girl (circa 1760). She, loth to be overlooked, cosigns this note with a smile (see illustration).

Leo Steinberg
New York City

Sanford Schwartz replies:

While I didn’t intend my comment about Ford Madox Brown and teeth to be taken quite so literally, I can understand Leo Steinberg’s desire to see if this is exactly the case. My point—it was, it’s true, barely present in my review—was that, in a way that’s far closer to twentieth-century photojournalism than to any earlier painting, Brown seems to “catch” people at their least flattering moments, and the show of teeth, along with the often grimacing, wincing facial expressions of his people, are really byproducts of his quest for a new, more impartial, even impersonal, naturalism. We’re left with a sense that the given individual in a Brown picture has been exposed, not merely that someone’s teeth are showing.

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