One of Dr. Boli’s frequent complaints about portraits today is that the subjects feel compelled to grin like imbeciles as soon as a camera is trained on them. “Smile for the camera” somehow became more than a tradition: it became a dogma. In fact younger readers may be surprised to learn that the phrase “Smile for the camera” was unknown before the middle of the twentieth century. It simply does not appear in literature. It was assumed that a portrait should show the subject in a dignified manner.
It is comforting, however, to realize that artificial expressions—and even the occasional feigned smile—have been the bane of portraitists for a long time. In 1623, John Webster’s play The Devil’s Law-Case was published, and Webster puts this speech into the mouth of one of his female characters. There is a layer of irony here, of course (as there often is in an English play of the classic period): the character who speaks these lines is herself vain and artificial. It should be noted that “is drawing” means “is being drawn”: in Webster’s time, the progressive form of the verb was not used in the passive.
With what a compell’d face a woman sits
While she is drawing! I have noted divers
Either to feign smiles, or suck in the lips
To have a little mouth; ruffle the cheeks
To have the dimples seen; and so disorder
The face with affectation, at next sitting
It has not been the same: I have known others
Have lost the entire fashion of their face,
In half-an-hour’s sitting.
——John Webster, The Devil’s Law-Case, Act I.