15 September 2010

The absence of teeth in fine paintings

An article at Ptak Science Books offers this thought:
"Did teeth exist in the Renaissance?  Well, while breezing through a bunch of art monographs for that period, it struck me that the tooth wasn’t making its way from the artists’ palettes to the canvas.  Not only that, it also occurred to me for the first time that people—in the large part—weren’t even opening their mouths..."
The commentary goes on to list many famous paintings, including of course the Mona Lisa, and notes that dental hygiene was not a total mystery at that time.  Perhaps people did have terrible teeth, but conversely many of the subjects of the paintings were mythical or allegorical; there's no reason Ulysses could not be portrayed with glistening teeth.

There are some additional thoughts and suggestions in the essay and its comment thread.  I'm not offering an opinion - just noting the subject matter as an interesting phenomenon.  The photo I've embedded is a portrait of Falstaff (1921) by Eduard von Grützner.


  1. Have you ever painted or drawn a a live model? Imagine asking a model to hold a toothy grin for an extended period of time. Toothy smiles are fleeting expressions and look strained when forced.

    While there may have been a fashion of not flashing rotten teeth when smiling before good dentistry, it's probably more to do with the time it takes to sit for a portrait. That's also why early photos have such somber-looking subjects. Exposures were really long and a blank expression is easier to hold for a long time.

  2. It's also possible that teeth weren't seen at the time as being inherently beautiful (since it's likely that even the most beautiful teeth of the time would be pretty ugly and consequently wouldn't be idealized even in paintings).
    Furthermore there seem to be peculiar trends in art regarding the human form... I couldn't help but notice that although in ancient Pompeii there are numerous images of nude males with hugely engorged and inaccurately enormous genitalia (in public areas of the house, no less), many ancient nude male statues in Europe (housed in many galleries) tend to have realistic or laughably-small genitalia (which today would undoubtedly be increased in size to match today's attitude that large genitalia is desirable for males).
    I realize of course that the people of Pompeii were generally really sex-obsessed and tended to produce primarily pornographic art, but the general idea still stands.
    If beautiful teeth didn't exist then all teeth would generally be ignored, and therefore painters of the time would naturally have omitted teeth from their art. However I'm just guessing here...

    (much as many ancient European nude statues of males depict realistic or

  3. **oops.. the bit in brackets at the end is a bizarre typo resulting from me shifting text around or something. Sorry about that!

  4. No problem re the glitch, Laura. For future reference, Blogger's setup doesn't allow you (or me) to edit posted comments, but if a big or bad typo occurs, just copy/paste/retype a replacement and I can delete the broken original.

  5. Mr. BJN, I paint and I have also been a model. A smile - with teeth - is NOT a big deal. You don't have to hold the smile for the entire session - only while the smile is being sketched. And you can relax and resmile because its not hyperrealism the painter wants, just a vision of a smile.

    If painters of that age avoided toothy smiles, its not because they couldn't paint them - it's because they didn't want them. It must have been considered inappropriate.

    M. DeBazo

  6. Maybe it was difficult to get white paint? ;^)

  7. it was more of an inappropriate thing... women back then wouldn't smile to show their teeth which explains why the mona lisa has a subtle smirk. only prostitutes would smile


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