Skip to main content

From Mona Lisa To Tony Blair - Historian Pinpoints the Moment The Open Mouth Smile Was Born

Orginally Published - 17 July 2000

Smiles have not always been the same. The modern open mouthed smile exposing the teeth is a particular favourite of politicians such as Prime Minister Tony Blair. It is thought to promote health and beauty and be a distinctive marker of one's personal identity, yet before the late 18th century people displaying open mouthed smiles were considered rude or demented - hence the closed mouth smile of the Mona Lisa. Now an historian at the University of Warwick has pinpointed when the modern smile was born and why.

Professor Colin Jones from the University of Warwick lays out his theory in a research paper published in the historical journal Past and Present. He pinpoints the first acceptable use of the open mouthed smile in polite society to a 1787 self portrait by the French artist Madame Vige?-LeBrun in which she depicts herself in a relaxed open mouthed smile, in the company of her daughter. She was still condemned for this by contemporary critics one pointing out that:


"An affectation which artists, art lovers and persons of taste have been united in condemning...is that in smiling [Madame Vige?-LeBrun] shows her teeth. This affection is particularly out of place in a mother."

Nevertheless from this point many significant French figures began to allow their portraits to depict them in open mouthed smiles. Professor Jones believes that two of the reasons for this change were a radical transformation in the practice of dentistry during this period, and a consumer boom in the range of products available for use with the mouth.

Much of Professor Jones' article entitled Pulling Teeth in Eighteenth-Century Paris focuses on the work of French entertainer come dentist Le Grand Thomas who drew huge crowds to his open air show where he pulled teeth with dramatic flourishes and costumes on the Pont-Neuf in Paris from 1710 through to the 1750's. Professor Jones describes how Le Grand Thomas was the last and greatest of the theatrical "Tooth Drawers" and how his kind came to be replaced by more scientific dentists who tried to care for teeth rather than simply removing them. He points out that the key first scientific approach to densitry was published by Parisian surgeon Pierre Fauchard in 1728 (Le Chirurgien-dentiste, ou Trait? des dents).

The 18th century also saw France lead the way in the development and proliferation of a wide range of products for mouth care, including the invention of aesthetically pleasing porcelain teeth (replacing more horrific forms of false teeth such as human teeth grafted onto hippopotamus jaws!), and the invention of spring loaded dentures. During the same period when George Washington could still only manage discoloured wooden dentures, Paris became Europe's leading centre for production of toothbrushes and tooth powders. All of this new dental technology fed a consumer boom which helped make the open mouth smile a lot more pleasing to the eye and more acceptable both in public and in portraiture.

For further details please contact:

Professor Colin Jones, Dept of History, University of Warwick
Tel: 024 7652 3979 office 01865 514399 home
email: c.d.h.jones@warwick.ac.uk