Why is it that a broad
smile is almost always wrong in a portrait?
the right above is a sketch by Sargent of Eleanor
Brooks, painted near Boston in 1890, in preparation
for the three-quarter-length portrait shown
here. Obviously, between the sketch and the
final portrait, the artist decided to eliminate
the broad smile. The lady still has a pleasant
expression on her face, but the smilewith
teeth showinghas been replaced with an
attractive, composed expression. Below are details
from twelve other Sargent portraits of women.
Not one is smiling. In fact, a concerted and
deliberate search through Sargent's oeuvre yields
only a handful of portraits in which the subject
has a definite smile on his or her face. The
same is true of traditional, historic portraiture
in general. Why is this? Why does the working
portrait artist consciously feel his hand and
heart restrained when the client requests a
smiling portrait? I think there are four reasons,
all of them potent.
The first objection
to broad smiles in painted portraits is simply
a practical result of the fact that the standards
in portraiture were firmly established in a pre-camera
era. In fact, the standards for portraiture were
established centuries before the invention of
the camera brought with it the technical capability
for capturing fleeting expressions. The portrait
subject patiently enduring a two-hour sitting
in the seventeenth century would not have been
inclined to attempt to hold a definite expression
of any kind, nor would the painter have thought
of asking him to. By the time the fast-action
shutter was invented in the middle of the nineteenth
century, several centuries had passed since portrait
painting had begun to dominate the art of picture
making. The museums of the world were already
filled with important examples by great artists.
The 150 years that have passed since the development
of action-stopping photography have not been sufficient
to erase or even alter the conventions of the
carved or paintedhas always been regarded
as high art. At its best and most sublime (by
Velazquez or Rembrandt) portrait painting has
been regarded with an almost reverential admiration.
"Gravitas" has been a staple of the
qualities expected in a fine portrait. Flippancy
and lightness are seldom qualities expected
in portraiture. Hence the tendency for a portrait
to be composed, restrained, and even dignified.
There is however, no mistaking the fact that
in the year 2009 the portrait painter goes about
his ancient craft in a world that is drenched
in photographyand photography in which
the technical possibilities increase with every
passing year. In every home, there are literally
thousands of images of the people who live there.
Boxes bulge with photographs by the hundreds.
Computer hard drives are taxed by the sheer
numbers of the images that are fed onto them.
In a high percentage of these personal imagesin
fact, probably in the majority of themthe
subjects are smiling. I think it is fair to
say that this is the standard by which household
photos are judged. If the subject of a picture
is broadly smiling, the picture is declared
good. If a smile is missing, the picture is
discarded. A group picture is considered marred
by the member who fails to oblige with the expected
Thus, the pervasiveness
of the smile in personal and domestic photography
adds enormously to the pressure on the portrait
painter to fall into line with the new demand
for an almost universal joviality.
When the portrait artist is asked to contribute
his product into this environment the tension
of those old seventeenth-century standards weigh
heavily upon him. How to resolve this? The only
thing that one can say is that everyone concerned,
when the issue comes up, must realize the simple
fact that the standards for candid photography
and the standards for historic, traditional
portraiture are different. These are different
art forms, with different standards.
The artist, for
his part, must hasten to challenge the idea
that the only alternative to a smiling expression
is a sad one. This, he knows, is simply not
the case at all. Between the smiling and the
morose lies the broad central world of the "composed"
expression. The thirteen women whose portraits
by Sargent appear here exhibit "composed,"
non-smiling expressions. It is an unavoidable
fact that the vast majority of the portraits
we refer to as "great" will be found
in this category.
One final factor
that should weigh heavily in the "smile"
or "no smile" discussion is the potential
for the decision to influence the monetary value
of the work of art in question. Yes, I know
that the most famous painting in all the world
is famous for its smile. But the quality that
enlivens the face of Leonardo's Mona Lisa is
a very long way from a broad smile. It is the
faintest of pleasant expressions. And of course
the word most often applied to it is enigmatica
word which carries with it the awareness that
the expression on her face is very hard to read.
But the point I want to make is that if Mona
Lisa or Madame X or one of Rembrandt's self-portraitsif
any of these featured a broad, toothy smile,
the gavel price at Sotheby's would go down byI
would venture to predictmany millions
So far, I have
enumerated only the arguments against the use
of broad smiles in classical or traditional
portraiture. But are there any arguments in
favor? I can think of only one, which I offer
herewith with a degree of reluctance. The reader
thus far may wish to protest, "But this
is not the seventeenth century. It is the twenty-first,
and prolonged sittings are no longer necessary
or desirable." That is most certainly true.
In fact, I would go so far as to agree that
the most highly-prized quality in portraiture
today is naturalness. Perhaps above all else
the contemporary portraitist in 2009 wants the
subject of his portrayal to appear relaxed,
at ease and comfortable. Gone forever are the
rigid, Napoleonic poses of earlier times. Today's
sitter wants to be seen as affable, urbane and
friendly. "Approachable" is the word
that business executives use most often when
describing the qualities they hope to project
through my portrait of them. This over-arching
desire brings with it the awareness that the
pose must be natural, even casual, and the facial
expression should convey warmth and friendliness.
This final awareness
of the expectations of contemporary people towards
their own portraits must not be allowed, however,
to confuse or void the timeless standards of
the centuries. This calls for diplomacy on the
part of the artist, and sensitivity on the part
of subject and client.
artist should find himself caught between the
explicit desire of his client for a smiling
portrait and his personal awareness of the wrongness
of this course, one possible denouement would
be to recommend that the oil portrait be displayed
along with framed (and smiling) photos of the
subject (the portrait on the wall, the photos
on the table below). Thus the painted portrait,
with its classical, composed facial expression,
provides a counterpoint image to the candid
photographic smile. The disparate images reveal
different sides of the subject's personalityin
the case of a beautiful woman, different aspects
of her beauty.