Colin Jones, The Smile Revolution in Eighteenth-Century Paris

Colin Jones, The Smile Revolution in Eighteenth-Century Paris (Oxford: Oxford University Press 2014) 256 pp. £14.99 Pb, £22.99 Hb. ISBN: 9780198715818

In a particularly memorable anecdote in his The Smile Revolution in Eighteenth Century Paris, Colin Jones follows in the footsteps of scholars who have treated Louis XIV’s absolutism as an early form of 'star power' through a new lens: that of the history of medicine. In 1686, Louis was operated on for an anal fistula, a painful and dangerous procedure. After the success of the operation, the court doctor found himself inundated with courtiers – some in genuine need, most not – begging for the same procedure to be performed on themselves. Here is one lesson we might take from Jones’s as Colin insightful history of the smile in eighteenth-century Paris. As dangerous and ineffective as the medical cures shilled by celebrities and their doctors might seem today, medical charlatanism has a rich history, one that has much to teach us regarding the history of science, and one interesting on its own merits.

Jones tracks the history of the smile (and its meaning) from the court of Louis XIV to the severed heads of the Terror. Taking the smile as historical artefact means that the book draws upon the history of science and medicine, and also the history of art, literature and emotions, making for a work that is wide-ranging but carefully constructed.

Jones begins in the court of Louis XIV, which he jokingly refers to as the 'Old Regime of Teeth'.  This chapter effectively demonstrates that in Louis’s court and Kingdom, the mouth and the teeth – as well as the activities they were associated with – were culturally loaded objects with carefully policed borders. This informed the relative social status of those who practised early forms of dental surgery, and also the cultural restrictions placed on smiling and laughter which held sway in the court of both Louis XIV and his successor. Various handbooks advised nobility to avoid laughter for its lower-class associations, and bodily orifices were carefully policed in both humanist and religious texts. In the latter, laughter became a weapon in 'a dark, cruel and unpleasantly faux-jocular argumentation aimed at ridiculing spiritual opponents' (35). Mouths remained closed in aristocratic portraiture and facial impassivity was maintained through the application of le fard, thick white makeup, subsuming individual facial and physiognomic differences in favour of a courtly uniformity.

Yet this facial regime began to change as the eighteenth century progressed and the court’s grip on etiquette began to slip. After Louis XIV drained the royal coiffeurs through costly wars, France found itself in a newfound period of prosperity thanks to imperialism. Jones describes the mood in Paris as one of gaiety with a freer press and the reopening of theatres previously closed by Louis XIV. This 'new classless economy of feeling' (60) was encouraged by genres such as the comédie lamoyante ('tearful comedy'), and the cult of sensibility was quickly entrenched in Paris with the translation of Samuel Richardson’s novels Pamela (1740) and Clarissa (1748). Soon, the smile became not a badge of scorn but a marker of humanity. This was supported by seventeenth and eighteenth-century philosophers and scientists such as Thomas Willis, Herman Boerhaave, and especially Albrecht von Haller (65). These 'sensationalist' sciences provided a material counterpart to the aesthetics of sensibility, and the emphasis on the smile as signifier of one’s humanity drew new attention to the appearance of teeth.

Luckily for the beau monde of Paris, the eighteenth century saw the birth of scientific dentistry. Jones focuses on one of the most integral figures in the professionalization of dentistry – Pierre Fauchard, born in 1678, whose hugely influential work Le Chirurgien-dentiste, ou Traité des dents coined the term dentiste. Fauchard would be responsible for a new type of dentistry that eschewed heroics and theatricality in favour of 'scientific credentials, preventative care, and functional efficiency' (80). In 1731 an Academy of (Dental?) Surgery was formed and by the mid-seventeenth century, surgeons 'were effectively autonomous' (82). In 1699, new specialties were created comprising care for kidney and bladder stones and tooth and eye care and the title of 'expert' was introduced. Yet this still failed to create a viable distinction between tooth-pullers such as le Grand Thomas and Pierre Fauchard, who the Dentistes saw as amateurs, and the professionals. Dentistes like Fauchard needed to create a language, scientific method and class identity that distinguished them as a group.

Fauchard’s portrait in Le Chirurgien-Dentiste (1728) exemplifies this self-fashioning. Dressed in robes, he points to a library of texts: 'All previous book learning on his subject, we are being encouraged to think, is crystallized in Fauchard’s two-volume work – and in his eloquently poised hand' (85). Paris, as the capital of the enlightenment, was the perfect place for a professional such as Fauchard to capitalise on the idea of human (and dental) perfectibility. Jones describes the late eighteenth century as a 'golden age' of dentistry in Paris. Dentistes invented new surgical instruments, published scores of dental-surgical works and the smile 'became the focus of a new facial technology grounded in forging individual identities' (99). Coincidentally, the eighteenth century was the period of possibly the worst teeth in history as a result of the importation of commodities such as sugar and tobacco. Dentists focused on cultivating an academic approach to teeth that prized conservation over extraction, and which led to a comfortable lifestyle for its many wealthy practitioners. Although, as Jones writes, 'Parisian dentists professed a polite science that was stronger on politeness than science' (107). In fact, it was not dentistry per se that was the most profitable arm of the profession, but rather the accoutrements that could be sold in order to encourage individuals to practice at home dental care. The rise of print advertisements for new dental technology such as the toothbrush and much-improved dentures played on the anxieties of the public regarding their health and appearance. Even the court of Louis XV began to slowly catch up to the new dental obsession and started to care for their teeth.

However, the smile revolution did not just play out solely in the medical marketplace but in the world of art, as Jones reveals when he traces the changing aesthetics of the smile in portraiture. One artist in particular, Madame Vigée Le Brun, showed a self-portrait at the Paris Salon in 1787. It can be read as the culmination of sensibility’s (and dentistry’s) elevation of the smile. Her lips are open to reveal teeth like pearls as she tenderly holds her child. As Jones writes, the painting shocked as it was 'out of step with emergent neo-classical aesthetics and notions of public art that had developed since the 1760s, which favoured gravity, reserve and emotional containedness' (129). The old conventions were facing pushback by the latter part of the 1800s and instead of gravity, individual likeness and expressiveness were starting to be in fashion.

The smile as signifier of transcendent humanity would be short-lived. Smiles turned to sarcastic grimaces in the pamphlet wars of the Terror. Furthermore, the revival of physiognomy towards the end of the eighteenth century through the works of Johann Kaspar Lavater and others made the dynamism of the face secondary to its features when it came to reading someone’s personality. Finally, many famous dentists fled from France during the Revolution and the only part of the dental market that remained buoyant was the trade in toothbrushes and other personal facial technology. The reign of the smile was over, for now. But in a century where so great a proportion of scholarly accounts of the political and cultural spheres seem to rest on silly and arcane interpretations of images of the body language and comportment of the rich, famous, and powerful, Jones’s work is a welcome reminder that such interpretations are historically contingent, rarely morally neutral, and always open to interpretation.

Philippa Chun, Cornell University