In today’s world, when someone says, “cheese,” everyone knows the drill-duck face pout, hand on hip and a certain tilt to the head. It has not always been this way….
In 17th century Europe, it was a well-established fact that the only people who smiled broadly, in life and in art, were the poor, the lewd, the drunk, the innocent, and the entertainer. Thank goodness my ancestors got the memo and presented stoic faces for this family portrait.
Many theories exist as to why folks in old portraits never smiled. Bad teeth? Holding a frozen face to accommodate the long exposure times? Social norms? Small mouth, tightly controlled, were held in high esteem? Keep your teeth covered?
“There are some people who raise their upper lip so high… that their teeth are almost entirely visible. This is entirely contradictory to decorum, which forbids you to allow your teeth to be uncovered, since nature gave us lips to conceal them.” —St. Jean-Baptiste De La Salle, The Rules of Christian Decorum and Civility, 1703
It is probably all of those things, and the idea that having your picture taken was a rare and significant event-quite possibly a once-in-a-lifetime experience. And, lest, they be deemed a drunk, a peasant or a silly child, they stood in front of the camera and said, “Prune!”