In 1787 critics of the Paris Salon were scandalised by a painting exhibited by Mme Vigée Le Brun. The subject was conventional enough: a self-portrait of the artist cradling her small daughter. The problem was that Vigée Le Brun was depicted smiling. You could even see her teeth. This was, as one critic put it, ‘an affectation which artists, connoisseurs and people of good taste are unanimous in condemning’.
These outraged art lovers must have been rather out of touch with current trends. For, as Colin Jones shows in The Smile Revolution — his revealing history of 18th-century French smiling — the full-on, lips-parted sourire had been increasingly visible in Paris since at least the 1740s.
It was a gesture partly intended as an attack on the stiff protocol of the royal court, where the convention was to keep the face as fixed as possible (the rigidity being helped by lashings of thick white make-up, sometimes even covering the lips).