Artists, from the beginnings of time to modern day, know the power of the smile. Let us walk through some of the most famous smiles in art history. Learn, through these paintings and sculptures, what such a simple facial expression can really mean.
1) The Mona Lisa, Leonardo Da Vinci (1503-1506)
What makes The Mona Lisa arguably the most famous painting in all of history? Many would say that it is her small, mysterious smile. The Mona Lisa has an intriguing smirk that catches the viewer off guard. What is she smiling about? Why does her gaze follow you wherever you seem to be viewing the painting? Why does her smile seam to appear and disappear as you move? Much fascination surrounds The Mona Lisa and her smile. Scientists and art critics alike have analyzed and studied The Mona Lisa for her smile.
2) The Laughing Cavalier, Frans Hals (1624)
This smug portrait of a cavalier seems to be where the alternate definition (condescending, proud, superior) for cavalier comes from. From his gaudy attire to his pompous facial hair, this medieval man oozes arrogance. It is unusual for a painting dating back to the 1600s to have such emotion written across the subject’s face.
3) Portrait of an unknown man, Messina (1470)
This anonymous man instantly grabs the attention of any viewer. His face is quarter turned, but his eyes look directly at the viewer and supplement the sly smile of the subject’s mouth. The painting may be a bit unnerving for some, as it appears that the man is laughing at the viewer.
4) La Liseuse, Renoir (1874)
Nothing conveys better the absolute joy of reading a great book than this piece. The warm colors and the relaxed smile of this young lady pull the viewers into the painting and let them share in the happiness of the book that the subject is reading.
Buddha is an iconic image used by followers of the Buddhist religion. In most of the statues and paintings of Buddha, he has a simple, pensive smile on his face. This smile encompasses all that he represents: the ultimate goal of peace and enlightenment, the art of meditation, and the joy in simplicity.
6) Yue Minjun’s Smile
Yue Minjun has the most famous smile in contemporary Chinese artwork. His enormous, maniacal grin graces the faces of all his paintings and sculptures. From his modern take on the statues from the tomb of China’s first emperor, to his piece with devil-horned clad subjects, all of his artwork smiles widely back at the viewer with the same self portrait of Minjun himself. To view some of his artwork and read more about Minjun, click here: NewYorkTimes.com.
7) Archaic smile in Greek sculpture
This smile was characteristic of Archaic Greek stone sculpture of the second quarter of the 6th century BC. The smile evokes a feeling of well being and brings the stone humans to life. Some archaeologists compare the unnatural smile to the staged smile in modern photographs. Whatever the reason for the abundance of smiles upon such statues in this time period can only be speculated.
8) Andy Warhol’s Marilyn Monroe
The iconic pop artist was not one to underestimate the power of the smile. This vivid piece marries the airy smile of one of the most famous female figures of the time with Warhol’s effective silkscreen printing technique that repeats the smile continuously with different colors. Marilyn’s smile changes as the colors change, despite the expression being the same in each print of her face.
9) Mrs. Elizabeth Wurtz Elder and Her Three Children, Jacob Eichholtz (1825)
This piece of artwork is unique in that among the four figures in the painting, three of them are smiling. Both the mother and the girl on the left are smiling directly out at the viewer, freezing the viewer in their gaze. The child on the right has a carefree smile and is looking out towards the left. This piece encompasses the joy and innocence of childhood and the satisfaction of being a mother.
10) The Turkish Slave, Francesco Mazzola detto Il Parmigianino (c. 1535)
The irony of such a title is that this woman is clearly not a slave. She wears elegant clothes, has rosy cheeks and soft skin, and has small, perfect curls peeking out underneath the embellished hat. Her innocent smile and far away gaze ads an air of mischief, as if she knows that she is not what it is said that she is.