A Laugh a Year

Jonathan Beckman

  • The Smile Revolution in Eighteenth-Century Paris by Colin Jones
    Oxford, 231 pp, £22.99, September 2014, ISBN 978 0 19 871581 8

In 1685, Louis XIV’s few surviving teeth were in such a parlous state that they required extraction, but the dentist operated so ineptly that he also removed a large section of one of the king’s maxillae. Louis endured the pain and inconvenience well enough even though, according to his chief physician, ‘every time the king drank or gargled, the liquid came up through his nose, from where it issued forth like a fountain.’ It was only after the cavity became infected that the royal surgeon took extreme action: he cauterised the wound and the king drank decorously again. Nearly 110 years later, soldiers loyal to the National Convention entered the Hôtel de Ville in Paris to arrest Robespierre. In the mêlée a bullet splintered his mandible. As he stepped onto the scaffold later that day, the bandage holding his face together was ripped off and he appeared, Michelet wrote, ‘pale, hideous, his mouth wide open and his teeth falling to the ground’. In the years between, Colin Jones shows, another, barely perceptible revolution occurred: polite society accepted the open-mouthed smile.

Elisabeth-Louise Vigée Le Brun’s ‘Self-Portrait with Her Daughter Julie’ (1786).
Elisabeth-Louise Vigée Le Brun’s ‘Self-Portrait with Her Daughter Julie’ (1786).

Wariness of the laugh (le rire) among classical and religious authorities had cast a shadow of disapproval over its diminutive, the smile (le sourire). Aristotle may have noted that laughing distinguished mankind from the rest of the animal kingdom, but that didn’t mean it was to be encouraged. ‘The passion of Laughter is nothyng but a suddaine Glory arising from the suddaine Conception of some Eminency in our selves by Comparison with the Infirmityes of others,’ Hobbes wrote (though when off duty he was, Aubrey said, a man of ‘merry humour’). Laughter was valuable as a reproach for absurd or wicked behaviour, but it could easily become improper. Laurent Joubert, a 16th-century doctor, makes laughter sound as unwelcome as a heart attack, what with

the redness of the face, the sweat that sometimes comes out of the entire body, the sparkling of the eyes with the effusion of tears, the rising of the veins in the forehead and throat, the coughing, the expelling of what was in the mouth and nose, the shaking of the chest, shoulders, arms, thighs, legs and the whole body, like a convulsion, the great pain in the ribs, sides and abdomen, the emptying of the bowels and bladder, the weakness of the heart for want of breath.

The Counter-Reformation had evoked gloomy visions of man’s fallen state. Jesus, it was argued, had never laughed and it ill behoved you to do so given that your soul was hanging in the balance. Jones cites the Abbé Thiers’s Traité des jeux, which allowed ‘discreet laughter’, though ‘preferably not on workdays, Sundays, holy days, and during Lent and Advent’. Though Erasmus praised folly, he also wrote, following Ecclesiasticus, that ‘the wise man is hardly heard laughing at all.’ The worst mistake one could make was ‘showing all one’s teeth’ while laughing – dogs showed their teeth.

For hundreds of years there had been sound reasons for not opening one’s mouth unless absolutely necessary. Tooth care was rudimentary and amounted to sluicing the mouth with water and wiping the teeth with a rag. Remedies for toothache, such as a concoction of chicken fat, hare’s brain and honey, often did more harm than good. In the 17th century, the dentition of the rich worsened at a faster rate than the teeth of those lower down the social scale, since sugar was a luxury few could afford. Not that the medical profession recognised the damage it did: it was one of Louis XIV’s courtiers, not a doctor, who suspected that his ravaged mouth was the work of ‘the large quantity of confitures which he ate’. A smile exposed a shameful flow of dribble between stranded teeth, and exuded a stench suggestive of the body’s impending demise.

Versailles during Louis’s reign was inhospitable to laughter and smiling of all but the most constipated sort. The still strong influence of Castiglione’s Book of the Courtier encouraged hangers-on to aim for ‘refinement’, and clamped mouths became a token of superiority – the full-throated belly laugh was the prerogative of lowlifes who frequented the carnival and the tavern. This contrast had been aggressively moralised by Christian art: heaven was filled with thin-lipped simperers, hell with maws stretched wide in screams of torment. The competition for advancement and favour at Versailles encouraged caution and an unflinching expression. At most a courtier might treat himself to a pinched grimace at the downfall of a rival – La Rochefoucauld rationed himself to one laugh a year.

After Louis’s death the avant-garde shifted its attention to Paris, whose growing middle class, eager to create an identity that marked it off from both nobs and plebs, became open to intellectual influences from across the Channel. The first of these was the cult of sensibility, fuelled by the translation of Samuel Richardson’s novels. Weeping and smiling became evidence of sincerity and authenticity. The partition between emotion and its expression came down, and a person’s true self was supposedly revealed. If the face painted a picture of the soul, then it was important to keep your teeth in good condition: whiteness offered assurances of purity, evenness and rectitude. The novels of Richardson and Rousseau were popular because they gave their readers the unfamiliar pleasure of identifying with their characters. ‘The backdrop is the world in which we live,’ Diderot wrote of Richardson: ‘The drama is essentially true; the individuals in it are completely real; its characters are drawn from the middle rungs of society; its actions are based on the customs of all nations; the passions that it paints are just like those I myself feel; they are moved by the same things that move me.’ Characters wept, and the reader wept in sympathy.

Crying is usually seen as the essence of sensibility but, as Jones points out, the tears that fell at the death of Clarissa, or of Julie in La Nouvelle Héloïse, were accompanied by serene smiles on the heroines’ faces: ‘Whereas it was formerly the eyes that had emblematised spirituality and the higher emotions, it was the mouth – traditionally the site of appetite and fleshly passion – that now did so.’ (Though this ignores the decisive role that the top of the face plays in smiling, as demonstrated by Jones’s author photo: the crescent moon of his smile is offset by the downward sweep of his moustache; the glint in his eyes shows he’s in good cheer.) The smiles of fictional characters and those who read about them made their way into the public sphere, which was energised by ‘amicable collisions’, as the Earl of Shaftesbury put it, between citizens. The smile was the natural adjunct of the passions douces – openness, kindness, friendship – and eased business in the institutions that incubated the generally optimistic Enlightenment project: the salon, the masonic lodge and the coffeehouse. Jones misses a trick by not delving further into the different ways the smile interpolated itself into each of these places: the allure of the salon stemmed, in part, from the peacocking intellectual combativeness of the attendees; and Freemasonry, while offering the opportunity to network, wore a heavy surplice of solemnity. Not all smiles are honest and though Jones concentrates on those that came naturally, counterfeit versions inevitably entered circulation. Louis-Sébastien Mercier, the prolific chronicler of Parisian life in the last days of the Ancien Régime, described a teacher of manners who instructed would-be gentlemen ‘to show their teeth when they laugh just enough and not too much’. A parish priest, having railed against ladies’ fashions, employed a racily dressed woman to use ‘all her charm of manner and voice and smile’ to fill his collection plate. Both parties knew that the sexual promise of the smile was false, but the glimpse of an open mouth could spark the fantasy that an invitation to kiss it might follow.

Bonhomie required a healthy pair of teeth. You could hardly be sociable if you mumbled through a collapsed mouth. The most intriguing sections of Jones’s book examine the establishment of dentistry as a medical science and respectable profession in the 18th century. Until then, tooth care had been more or less limited to extraction. Physicians considered meddling with mouths beneath them, so when decay became too painful to bear, the only resort was to an opérateur pour les dents, someone with no medical qualifications who removed the throbbing tooth with a pair of pliers. Opérateurs were itinerant and performed their surgery on platforms in public, more for the entertainment of the crowd than the wellbeing of the patient: one fabled practitioner sat on a horse and excised the offending tooth with the point of his sword. The opérateurs, who sold snake-oil panaceas on the side, became known as charlatans (from the Italian for ‘to chatter’ or ‘to wander’), and their sales pitch created the French idiom ‘to lie like a tooth-puller’. (The lie in question may have been the dentist’s enduring falsehood: ‘Don’t worry, this won’t hurt.’)

The increasing affordability of sugar and tobacco meant that, by the 18th century, people’s teeth were worse than they’d ever been while dentistry improved to meet the commercial opportunity. Dentists were absorbed into the fraternity of surgeons and cleansed themselves of charlatanism. Jones’s hero is Pierre Fauchard, author of Le Chirurgien-Dentiste (1728), the first modern treatise on dentistry. Fauchard emphasised preservation over removal: ‘I only decide to extract teeth with great regret.’ Dentists abandoned the streets for plush consulting rooms where they probed mouths with considerable deftness, sometimes concealing their implements in case the sight of steel frightened their patients. More books were published on the subject of teeth, it was claimed, than ‘any other branch of physic’. New accoutrements appeared, promising a bright smile for all: tongue-scrapers, toothpicks and, for the first time, toothbrushes; mouthwashes – Fauchard recommended fresh urine – and teeth whiteners. In 1787, Nicolas Dubois de Chémant created the first porcelain dentures, making ivory, which tended to stain and putrefy, redundant.

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Did the smile embed itself into French culture to the extent that Jones claims? His book begins with Elisabeth-Louise Vigée Le Brun’s self-portrait with her daughter in which the artist parts her lips to reveal five delicate teeth. ‘The triumph of the smile was a triumph for natural virtue,’ he writes. The portrait was exhibited at the Paris Salon in 1787, at the end of the era in which the smile supposedly became well mannered, but it still sent gallery-goers into fits of disgust. Even the Mémoires secrètes – a publication aimed at the intelligentsia – wrote that Vigée Le Brun’s smile was ‘an affectation which artists, connoisseurs and people of good taste are unanimous in condemning’.

The controversy over the painting signals the difference between the literary smile, whose spread across the face is evoked by the momentum of the sentence, and the painted version, which is unnaturally stilled (herein lies the problem of smiling for the camera – saying ‘cheese’ helps, as much because the ‘se’ relaxes the mouth before a rictus, provoked by the ‘chee’, sets in). In La Nouvelle Héloïse, Saint-Preux, during an exacting critique of a portrait of his beloved Julie, remarks that ‘it is true that your portrait cannot pass from seriousness to smile. But that is precisely my complaint: to display all your charms, you would need to be painted in all the moments of your life.’ A painted smile can’t be relaxed – it holds the viewer at arm’s length, making him wonder what sinister machinations lie behind it. This partly accounts for the menace of Chucky, the smiling doll from the Child’s Play movies, but even Alice, on meeting the Cheshire Cat, who ‘looked good-natured’, can’t help noticing the ‘very long claws and a great many teeth’ revealed by its grin (in Tenniel’s illustration they seem to have been made for biting).

Vigée Le Brun’s self-portrait is more complex than Jones admits. It’s not immediately obvious that she smiles with love for her daughter (unlike, say, the toothy Madonna in Joos van Cleve’s Virgin and Child who glows with affection as she presses her breast to her son’s mouth). The artist gazes straight out of the picture but not in the conventional fashion: she is looking at something, and her daughter has turned to look over her shoulder and stares in the same direction, her eyes bulbous with fascination. Hers is a smile that conceals more than it reveals. It unsettles because Vigée Le Brun seems to be watching something we can’t see but which ought, if we follow the sightlines, to be situated by our left shoulder. The sweep of her right arm across the foreground, as she clutches her child to her chest, emphasises the distance between her and us.

Vigée Le Brun’s detachment may have had something to do with her unique professional status. As Marie Antoinette’s favourite portraitist – she painted her more than thirty times – Vigée Le Brun had regular access to the queen. This was a rare privilege, as Marie Antoinette increasingly withdrew from the life of the court to spend time in private with a select group of friends. To some, her société particulière was just another clique. But her yearning for uninhibited companionship, which had been denied her by the calcified rituals of Versailles, fed on the same intellectual currents of sentimentality and sociability that enthused Paris. Her retreat provoked resentment from courtiers who felt shut out, and from the public at large, who gorged on rumours of depravity behind closed doors. Vigée Le Brun’s reticent smile in the self-portrait – and, we assume, at court – suggests lukewarm compensation for an entrée denied: it placates, endures and staves off unwanted intimacy.

The smile didn’t survive the Revolution. Saint-Just may have said that ‘happiness was a new idea in Europe,’ but his own idea of happiness turned out to be stoically self-denying. ‘Tragedy appears to be more republican in spirit,’ Diderot wrote, and the stern classical countenances of David’s paintings served as exemplars to the revolutionary vanguard. The old prejudices against laughter reappeared as French society fractured. Royalist reactionaries sneered; the foul-mouthed Père Duchesne cackled. To those trying to forge a new world, smiling at a time of national crisis could be taken for aristocratic backsliding, even sedition. Robespierre was as ‘impassive’ as he was ‘incorruptible’, and in the growing paranoia, agents of state repression read treason into the slightest flicker of the features. ‘Face too jolly to be accounted a true republican,’ one prison warder said of his charge. One of the few places the enlightened smile could still be found was in the defiance of those about to be guillotined.

Gums were less important than hearts and minds when the Republic set about fashioning its citizens, and in the cull of Ancien Régime institutions, dentists were expelled from the halls of medicine. The regression in dental hygiene happened quickly. In 1800, one dentist complained that tooth care was again the province ‘of the empiric, of the charlatan, and of any vendor of dental remedies who can garner the confidence of the sick’. Jones doesn’t mention him, but the explorer Jacques Hamelin arrived in Tasmania two years later, and in a journal entry about the Aborigines he encountered, he recorded that ‘it would be very difficult to find in Paris 36 mouths as well furnished with such white teeth.’