The Question of the Smile
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 portrait
The portraitwhether 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 smile.
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
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
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 of dollars.
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
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
If the 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.