To the Editors:
It might be helpful if the debate initiated by Sanford Schwartz and Professor Leo Steinberg on the appearance of teeth in Western art could be widened to more circumstantial consideration of the variable meanings ascribed to teeth in painting in the past. It does seem odd that the open-mouthed and toothy smile, which is so much a badge of identity, good health, and beauty in the twenty-first century, should appear to have no history—or at any rate, no historians.
The teeth most available for inspection in pre-modern art must have been those on the death-head—hardly an emblem of health and beauty. In eighteenth-century France, moreover, the appearance of a living subject’s teeth in a painting invariably signified that the person baring her teeth in this way was plebeian or vulgar, lunatic or demented, or else caught expressing some extreme emotion or grand passion, at which moment reason and gravitas were temporarily in abeyance. These conventions, which seem to have been established in the late seventeenth century by Louis XIV’s Premier Painter, Charles Lebrun, were further codified by Watelet and appear in Diderot’s Encyclopédie. They were believed to derive from Antiquity. Thus when Madame Vigée-Lebrun displayed a smiling self-portrait in the Paris Salon in 1787, in which she revealed beautifully white teeth, contemporaries certainly thought that she was committing a shocking and revolutionary act, which infringed established codes of facial presentation. One critic, for example, roundly condemned “an affectation…which shows no precedent amongst the Ancients.”
In the light of this, it would be interesting to know how many of the teeth which Professor Steinberg has detected were on faces which accord with Charles Lebrun’s conventions—and if there are some that do not, then what this might signify for the cultural history of the teeth, of mouths, and of smiles.
On a concluding note, your readers may be interested to learn that when I published an article on this subject in August 2000 (“Pulling Teeth in Eighteenth-Century Paris,” Past and Present, 166, 2000), the British press and international media (including The Washington Post) gave the matter wide coverage, with the added hypothetical spin that, had the perennially toothy and grinningly open-mouthed British prime minister, Tony Blair, been around in the eighteenth century he would almost certainly have been locked away as a demented lunatic.