The Easel

Why so serious? The reason we rarely see smiles in art history

The closed mouth half smile – the smirk – appears in portraiture but rarely a full smile. Why? Until being rehabilitated by photography, a toothy smile was thought unfashionable, a gesture of the lower classes. Perhaps a better explanation, though, is that a smirk is easily interpreted – coyness for example. In contrast, a smile is more ambiguous – “unnervingly unreadable … is it a revealing expression or one of concealment?”