Why is Nobody Smiling?

September 3, 2017

A rainy day at the beach yesterday sent me to Norfolk, Virginia’s excellent Chrysler Museum of Art. I was particularly impressed by the labels on many of the works of art. They were very helpful in directing attention to certain features or posing thoughtful questions–or answering the question that is likely in the visitor’s head. This one made me think of the Myth 127: People didn’t smile in pictures because of the long exposure time required.  The myth speaks to photographs but makes the point that photographic portraits followed the traditions of painted portraits. Here’s what the Chrysler label said: 

Revisited Myth # 127: People didn’t smile in pictures because of the long exposure times required.

August 16, 2017

Martha Katz-Hymen at the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation wrote about this belief. It is true, but it isn’t the whole story.

It is true that people rarely smiled in old photographs because it is harder to hold a smile than a relaxed face, and photographs were not a quick “click” in the early years. But that is only one reason. The other is cultural.

“But an article by Nicholas Jeeves, recently published in the Public Domain Review, suggests that, when folks frowned, they did so for reasons as economic, social and historical as they were technological. Mark Twain thought as much. In one of his letters, collected by Jeeves, he wrote:

A photograph is a most important document, and there is nothing more damning to go down to posterity than a silly, foolish smile caught and fixed forever.

Twain wasn’t the only believer in the idiocy of the style. Look back at painted portraiture — the tradition photography inherited — and you’ll rarely see a grinning subject. This is, in fact, Jeeves’s subject. “By the 17th century in Europe,“ he writes, “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 entertainment.’

Read the whole article: http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2013/09/why-didn-t-people-smile-in-old-portraits/279880/?google_editors_picks=true

And read Nicholas Jeeves entire article, below. Jeeves is an artist, writer and lecturer at Cambridge School of Art. One excerpt: “A walk around any art gallery will reveal that the image of the open smile has, for a very long time, been deeply unfashionable.” http://publicdomainreview.org/2013/09/18/the-serious-and-the-smirk-the-smile-in-portraiture/


Previous comments:

  1. Brian Leehan says:

    Looking forward to reading the linked article. I have always heard it was the “formality” of poses in portrait paintings that influenced poses people struck in early photographs (as is mentioned in this posting). Never thought about the issue of long exposure times for photographs – which makes a lot of sense, too. Of course, sitting for a portrait to be painted of you involves a LOT more “exposure time” than an early photograph, so perhaps it’s all inter-related. I’ve also heard that people were reluctant to smile because of the state of most people’s teeth in the 19th century. I think I can recall one or two photographs I’ve seen, total, of a group of soldiers in the field during the Civil War where one or two are smiling – usually with a closed mouth. I think one of those was with a soldier smiling and showing teeth, but he was in a larger group and is was hard to discern the state of his teeth. I just recall being surprised to see a photo from that period where someone was smiling broadly enough to show teeth.

  2. Melissa Nesbitt says:

    I discuss this on my tours frequently. Glad to know I’m getting it right. I often wonder what future generations will think of us from the 20th/21st centuries who not only smile but do all sorts of goofy poses.

    • Mary Miley says:

      Or no teeth.

      • therealguyfaux says:

        Candid photos of Queen Victoria, taken late in life, once short exposures had become possible, show her to have had a Terry-Thomas/David Letterman gap. (Of course, these were family photos– back then, nobody would have “paparazzi’d” the Queen!) At least in her case, SHE may have wanted to play down her dental condition in her photos, at any rate; But I’m sure maintaining the “stern visage of Vic” would have been advised to her, in any event, as looking more “regal.” (Remember, this is a somewhat prematurely-matronly thirtyish woman we are talking about, in the earliest photos of her.)

  3. Curtis Cook says:

    This reminds me of a recent comedy movie “A Million Ways to Die in the West” (spoiler alert: there aren’t a million ways depicted in the film, but it feels like they go through forty or so).

    In one scene the male and female protagonists are passing along a midway at a county fair and see a travelling photographer. The woman says she heard a rumor that some guy down in Texas had actually managed to hold a smile long enough for it to show up on film. They agree that the very idea is ridiculous, but at the end of the film the guy gives her a copy of the rumored photo… and it really does look unnatural.

Revisited Myth # 66: In the winter, itinerant portrait painters would work ahead, painting canvases with bodies and backgrounds, but no heads, so that come summer, they would have only to fill in the subject’s head.

January 4, 2016



This is, I think, my favorite myth because it is such a good idea! It appeals to my hyper organizational nature. Stay home during the winter months and paint a stock of canvases with bodies and backgrounds, then ride out in the warm months to find clients who could select a body and pay to have their own head painted on it. A real time saver for both artist and sitter, right? What could be more logical?


But there is no evidence for it. None. No artist or sitter mentioned in dairies or other written records that this practice occurred. No unfinished, headless portrait painted by an early American folk artist has been discovered in an attic or storage shed. (The few unfinished portraits that do survive inevitably include heads.) No physical evidence, like overlapping paint layers at the neck or head, has been detected on existing portraits. Nonetheless, museum guides say that someone in the group inevitably mentions this myth whenever folk art portraits come into view.

It makes sense to us today because it seems to explain the weird angles and the similarities in clothing and backgrounds of some American folk portraits. However, in portrait painting, artists typically start with the most important feature—the head or eyes—and work the rest around that. The myth also seems to explain why some of these portraits are so . . . well, irregular. The perspective is off; the arms bend in unnatural ways; the head is larger than the body. Art historians say that these anomalies occur because the painters were unschooled. They had inborn talent, yes, but without any formal art training, they didn’t understand perspective or proportion. 

Because there are many examples of portraits that are highly similar in body and background, the myth spread. Scholars such as E. C. Pennington (Lessons in Likeness, 2011) and museum curators at museums like the American Folk Art Museum, Cooperstown, the Columbus Museum, and Colonial Williamsburg’s Abby Aldrich Rockefeller galleries point out the lack of evidence for this practice.



Nann says:
October 16, 2011 at 10:29 am (Edit)
In grade school I read a mystery book that included one of those headless canvasses so for four decades or so I’ve assumed that was true (and I’ve seen many early 19th-c portraits). Thanks for providing “the whole picture”!

Hammond-Harwood House says:
October 18, 2011 at 11:13 am (Edit)
At Hammond-Harwood House in Annapolis, MD, we have a portrait by Robert Edge Pine that shows that the head and body were painted separately. You can clearly see a square where the layer of canvas containing the head seems to have been glued on top of the layer showing the body. I don’t think that Pine painted a generic body and then put a specific face on it, but I haven’t been able to find a definite reason for the technique he used. Someday I hope to have time to research it…

marymiley says:
October 18, 2011 at 4:11 pm (Edit)
How very odd . . . sounds like the artist glued another head onto one he didn’t like, or maybe the sitter didn’t like his first attempt so he painted another. Aren’t there X-ray machines that look underneath paint and canvas? I guess they are expensive. What a great mystery! I hope you can solve it one day.

Will Hunter says:
November 23, 2011 at 5:52 pm (Edit)
Is this the picture on your profile? I would like to see the portrait.

marymiley says:
November 23, 2011 at 5:56 pm (Edit)
The folk art portrait I used to illustrate this myth is just one I found online and thought illustrated the point that heads and bodies didn’t always look like they went together. There is no known illustration of a headless portrait, so I couldn’t do that.

Will Hunter says:
November 23, 2011 at 5:40 pm (Edit)
There is a painting at the Fearing Tavern Museum in Wareham Mass that the sitters head is very oddly placed her a body. It has been suggested this is a stock painting finished with the sitters head. I will attempt to photograph it, but it may take sometime. The museum is operated by the local historcal society and only open on Saturday in August. It was this painting that help fuel my interest in these early American Artist.

john gebhardt says:
February 12, 2012 at 10:55 pm (Edit)
Recently purchased a 14 by 16 inch original frame portrait of a small child.
The body appears to be a photo but the head is painted. it is odd because the head appears much older then the body.

The head is a child about 2 or 3 but the body is an infant.

Can you refer us to a research site or have comment??

thank you

marymiley says:
February 13, 2012 at 9:02 am (Edit)
Do you have any idea how old the portrait is? I have portraits, smaller than yours, of great-great-grandparents that are painted photographs, something that was done to colorize the black and white photos of the day. Could that be the case with yours?


Revisited Myth # 44: The position of a horse’s legs on an equestrian statue tells the fate of the rider.

April 6, 2015


This persistent myth claims that there is a code in the positioning of the horses legs in equestrian statues telling the fate of the rider. Supposedly, if one hoof is raised, the rider was wounded in battle. It two hooves are raised, he died in battle. If all four hooves are on the ground, he survived the battle/war. It isn’t true, but what makes it so amusing is that the myth persists, even though anyone can look around at the statues and see that there is no relationship to the “code.” Snopes has the best lengthy rebuttal at http://www.snopes.com/military/statue.asp, but I’ll summarize here.

In Washington, D.C., the American city with more statues than any other, one third of the equestrian statues follow the code. Seeing as how there are three possibilities, it seems that chance is hard at work. In Gettysburg, another location full of statues, most of the horses actually do follow the code, but not all. (General Longstreet wasn’t wounded in that battle but his horse has one leg raised.)

General Andrew Jackson, who did not die at the Battle of New Orleans but lived to become president.

General Andrew Jackson, who did not die at the Battle of New Orleans but lived to become president.

How did this myth get started? My opinion is that it started at Gettysburg where most of the statues actually do conform, if coincidentally, to the “code.” If you were to look at three or four statues and find the pattern held true, you might conclude all the rest did too. And we are all suckers for any sort of “secret code,” so that naturally sticks in our minds.

The myth lives on in another format in Richmond, Virginia, along Monument Avenue where Confederate heroes are said to face north if they died in the war and south if they lived through it. Generals Lee and Jackson do fit the formula, but the others (Stuart, Davis, and Maury) face east, which means . . . exactly what? (Actually, if you confined the statement to Confederate generals, leaving out Davis and Maury, and used the direction that their horses faced rather than their riders, the myth would hold true for those three instances, but that’s getting a bit elaborate.)

The equestrian statues code seems to be an American manifestation of the English effigies-of-knights code, which is at least as old as the nineteenth century. Supposedly, the position of the legs of the knights on their tombs indicates whether or not they went on Crusade. An English historian of the 1920s tried to debunk this by pointing out many examples where this was clearly wrong. We can all feel his pain as he wrote in 1923, “Surely it is time that the imaginary connection between cross-legged effigies and the Crusades should be exploded, and yet how rampant is that fiction in certain places, and how constantly it has to be contradicted!” No rest for the weary historian . . . 

Revisited Myth # 37: Since most people were illiterate, shop signs had to have pictures instead of words.

February 2, 2015
Photo courtesy of Colonial Williamsburg Foundation

Photo courtesy of Colonial Williamsburg Foundation

While this may have been true in medieval Europe, the statement does not hold up for colonial America.

Colonial shop signs and inn signs with pictures were no doubt helpful to people who couldn’t read, but they were not used because of mass illiteracy. The overwhelming majority of white colonists were literate. (The overwhelming majority of blacks were not.) Percentages changed over time and vary from colony to colony or state to state, and the principle way to ascertain literacy is by using a signature as evidence, even though it is certain that some people could write their names but not read or write much else, and others could read but not write their names. 

Studies of specific areas give estimates for specific time periods. One study examined legal documents in the second half of the seventeenth century and found that about 60% of the white men and 25% of the white women could read. Another shows that in the Williamsburg area in the middle of the eighteenth century, 94% of white males and 56% of white females could read. In general, the evidence strongly suggests that nearly all property owners and heads of households in Virginia in the late colonial period were literate. In New England, literacy rates were higher than elsewhere because there were more schools and nearly everyone learned to read so that they could read the Bible. There are no reliable estimates of black literacy for the colonial period that I am aware of–please forward anything you might know about! Prior to the Civil War in the mid-nineteenth century, about 10% of blacks could read. After Reconstruction and the efforts of the Freedman’s Bureau, that number had risen to 30%.

Wealth and gender were the strongest predictors of literacy–no surprise there!

Simplifying the studies into one sentence, I would say that around the time of the American Revolution, about two thirds to 90% of white males could read, and about half to two thirds of white women. The pictures-on-the-shop-signs claim is a myth. But putting pictures or symbols on a shop sign was tradition and they certainly are eye-catching, so that probably explains their continued popularity.  

To read more on this topic, see http://www.history.org/Foundation/journal/Winter11/literacy.cfm

Revisited Myth #3: Men posed with one hand inside the vest to save money since portrait painters gave a discount if they didn’t have to go to the extra work of painting the fingers.

February 1, 2014


       Aw, come on . . .

       Also known as the “arm and a leg” myth: that the expression about something costing an arm and a leg came about because portrait painters charged more if they had to paint the subject’s arms or legs. There is no historical verification for either of these myths. In fact, early photographs of men often show this pose, and there was no question about saving money by hiding a hand in photography. mcclellan

      The simple fact is that standing with one hand tucked inside a vest or jacket was a popular, dignified pose for gentlemen and royalty of that era. Do you really think that the Emperor Napoleon, King George III, or President George Washington were particularly concerned about getting a discount from their portrait painters? 

     This was a portrait cliche that appeared “with relentless frequency in England in the eighteenth century,” says art historian Arline Meyer in an article titled “Re-Dressing Classical Statuary: The Eighteenth-Century ‘Hand-in-Waistcoat’ Portrait” (March 1995: The Art Bulletin). (To read the article, see http://www.questia.com/library/journal/1P3-1498627/re-dressing-classical-statuary-the-eighteenth-centuryThe pose goes all the way back to the classical era when the proper stance for formal public speaking was having one hand inside the toga. By the eighteenth century, it had become a trademark pose for men of quality, nobles, and royals. Having a portrait painted was the prerogative of a distinguished gentleman, and the hand-in-vest pose was another symbol of his stature. Other common “show off” symbols include a window from which one can see the subject’s fine mansion, and props such as an oriental rug on the table to indicate wealth and books to indicate a scholarly mind.

Son of Pineapple

April 3, 2013



I hadn’t intended to revisit Myth #12, but several readers have written mentioning more pineapple myths that are off-shoots of the original one (that the pineapple symbolized hospitality in the 17th and 18th centuries). In a nutshell, the pineapple-as-hospitality idea seems to have started in the early 20th century. In earlier times, it was merely a decorative motif. 

One reader writes, “I was also told by the tour guide at Mount Vernon that the pineapple in the bedroom was a subtle suggestion that the guest was no longer welcome. Perhaps a parting gift?” Another wrote that a visitor told her that when a homeowner got tired of their overnight guest, they would leave a pineapple on the guest’s bed as a message to move on. 

Yet another said that returning sea captains would stick a pineapple on the fencepost or set it on the front porch to let neighbors know he was home and ready for hospitality. I’m sure there are more.


For an excellent, exhaustive, and I think definitive article about the pineapple, you can’t beat Michael Olmert’s “The Hospitable Pineapple” in the Winter 1997-1998 issue of the Colonial Williamsburg Journal which is, sadly, not available online (you can always write to Colonial Williamsburg for a back issue). Professor Olmert teaches at the University of Maryland and one of his specialties is the 17th and 18th centuries. Here is a passage from that piece: “And here is what we do not know about pineapples: that they had anything at all to do with hospitality in the 17th and 18th centuries. It’s hard to imagine a ship captain sacrificing something so rare and expensive and tasty as a pineapple by spiking it on his door, his roof, or his garden gate–as it says on the card that comes with the little brass pineapple bookmark sold today in gift shops.”


Bingo–it is the gift shops sales clerks and other salespeople who perpetuate this myth for the boost it gives to the sale of pineapple-themed merchandise. And frankly, today it is true! After almost a century of repetition, the pineapple has come to symbolize hospitality. But no one has yet been able to point to an example of that association in the 17th, 18th, or 19th centuries. 


Mary Todd Lincoln Hoax

February 19, 2012

a portrait that isn't Mary Todd Lincoln

This seems more hoax than myth, but either way, it’s one that has been going on for almost a hundred years. The New York Times carried this story a few days ago.

The painting was purported to be one Mrs. Lincoln had made of herself as a surprise gift for the president, but before she could give it to him, he was assassinated. Turns out it’s another woman’s likeness, and the painting was retouched by a vaudeville actor, no less, in the 1920s and sold to Lincoln descendants along with the heart-wrenching story. The forger changed the hairdo to look more like Mrs. Lincoln’s and added a brooch that showed a picture of Abraham Lincoln. The scam earned him a couple hundred bucks. Art conservators who cleaned the painting discovered the over-painting and realized it wasn’t Mrs. Lincoln at all. For the whole story, see 


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