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Can We See Evidence of Poor Hygiene in Art History?

Three grotesque old men with awful teeth grimacing and pointing at each other (1773), engraving by T. Sandars after J. Collier. Courtesy of Wellcome Collection.

Three grotesque old men with awful teeth grimacing and pointing at each other (1773), engraving by T. Sandars after J. Collier. Courtesy of Wellcome Collection.

Reader question: “How can you see on people in for example the 17th century that they didn’t take care of their hygiene as well as us? Did they try to hide their teeth in paintings because they were so bad? How was their skin? Are there examples of paintings where the artist doesn’t try to make the subject look ‘better’ than they actually where?” – asked by Agnes

This is an interesting question, and one that’s actually quite difficult to answer because it’s so broad. Let me just say straight off the bat that my answer will definitely not be able to encompass all of 17th century art history (especially non-Western art history), and if you have any relevant artworks or information that I’ve missed, feel free to contact me and I’ll add it to the post. But using the limited information that I do have, let me just give you some very brief answers first: it’s complicated, maybe, fine unless they were sick, and definitely yes.

Now, let’s go a bit deeper, starting with what we know about overall hygiene in the 17th century, and finishing with a specific genre where you’ll actually find depictions of poor hygiene.

Bathing
People Bathing (1640), Wolfgang Heimbach

People Bathing (1640), Wolfgang Heimbach

The most popular notion about hygiene in “the olden days” is probably that people didn’t bathe, and were therefore really smelly. This both is and isn’t true, and depends on what time periods and which countries you’re looking at.

Bathing Woman (1750), Torii Kiyomitsu

Bathing Woman (1750), Torii Kiyomitsu

During the 15th and 17th centuries in Japan, for example, bathing became a major social and cultural institution, and not only that: it came with increased focus on hygiene. While bathing had been important in the region for a long time for religious or therapeutic reasons, it was now that the aspect of “becoming clean” became more and more important. We see plenty of depictions in Japanese art history of people (usually women) bathing, often in bathhouses.

Onna yu ("Bathhouse Women") (1752–1815), Torii Kiyonaga

Onna yu (“Bathhouse Women”) (1752–1815), Torii Kiyonaga

In Europe at the time, though, the effects of bathing on health seem to have been contentious; specifically, bathing or washing using warm water. In 17th century France, for example, it was likely widely believed that bathing in warm water opened people’s pores up and made them more susceptible to disease. (There seems to have been no opinions on health risks with cold water.) More importantly, however, actually filling up a warm bath took huge amounts of labour and was difficult if you weren’t rich.

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Nude woman bathed by 3 female attendants (c. 1790 – 1810), unknown artist. Courtesy of the British Museum.

Instead of bathing, therefore, many people (unless they went to a public bath or bathed in a lake) washed parts of themselves in a kind of sponge bath. Pouring water onto yourself, like in the painting above, would probably also have been common. In Europe, aristocrats also wore linen shirts to draw out dirt from the skin, and cleaned themselves with herbs, salves and flowers.

Gabrielle d'Estrées et une de ses soeurs (Gabrielle d'Estrées and one of her sisters) (c. 1594), unknown artist

Gabrielle d’Estrées et une de ses soeurs (Gabrielle d’Estrées and one of her sisters) (c. 1594), unknown artist

There are plenty of paintings from this time showing people bathing (although never with soap), but yeah, they probably smelled bad.

Removal of excessive humours
Bowl with bloodletting scene, Iran (13th century). Courtesy Museum of Islamic Art in Berlin (Pergamon Museum).

Bowl with bloodletting scene, Iran (13th century). Courtesy of the Museum of Islamic Art in Berlin (Pergamon Museum).

Historian Dr. Louise Hill Curth gives an excellent introduction to how British people in the 17th century viewed preventative medicine in her text Lessons from the past: preventive medicine in early modern England. She writes that, along with things like diet and exercise, it was also widely believed that good health was linked to purging the body of “excessive humours”; that is, bodily fluids.

You might have heard about how important the concept of “humours” used to be when it came to medicine and health. For people in the 17th century, removing humours was part of their hygienic routines. Sweating, vomiting, sneezing, gargling, and, of course, bloodletting were all ways of removing humours. While we can’t see any clear visual indicators of how these practices affected people’s health, we can definitely see depictions of what they looked like. In this painting by 17th century Dutch painter Jacob Toorenvliet, for example, we see a doctor binding a woman’s arm right after a bloodletting procedure:

A_surgeon_binding_up_a_woman's_arm_after_bloodletting._Oil_p_Wellcome_L0016891

A surgeon binding up a woman’s arm after bloodletting (1666), Jacob Toorenvliet. Courtesy of Wellcome Collection.

Dental care
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Farmer at the dentist (c. 1616–17), Johann Liss

There are plenty of depictions of dentistry in art history, with evidence of dentistry being found as far back as 7000 B.C.

Good teeth were valued even back in the 16th and 17th centuries. But that doesn’t mean that people knew how to properly clean them. In Europe and the U.S., methods of cleaning teeth included mouthwashes consisting of vinegar, or rubbing herbs or even tobacco ashes onto the teeth using cloth. This artwork from the 18th century actually shows teeth being extracted from poor children to create dentures for the upper class – it’s satirical (although teeth transplants were apparently popular for a short time), but reflects the importance placed on having nice teeth:

A fashionable dentist's practice: healthy teeth are being extracted from poor children to create dentures for the wealthy (1787), T. Rowlandson. Courtesy of the Wellcome Collection.

A fashionable dentist’s practice: healthy teeth are being extracted from poor children to create dentures for the wealthy (1787), T. Rowlandson. Courtesy of Wellcome Collection.

So, did people hide their teeth in paintings because they were so bad? We don’t really know, but it’s definitely rare to see teeth in older paintings; in fact, it’s rare to see open mouths at all.

Historians have speculated about the reasons for the the rarity of teeth in paintings. One reason could be, of course, that subjects didn’t want to show the state of their teeth. Others have speculated that smiling or showing teeth for a long time is more difficult when having to hold a pose for a portrait, or that showing your teeth was a breach of etiquette at the time. Visible teeth could also have symbolized vulnerability, carnality, or even transience and death.

So do we actually see any terrible hygiene in the art?

Well, hygiene standards varied from country to country, but there was obviously a worldwide desire to take care of your appearance and to look your best in portraits, so the effects of poor hygiene on people’s appearances did not always show up in the artworks themselves.

But have a look at some of the examples of 16th – 17th century artworks showing people with bad teeth I’ve found below, and see if you can spot a theme:

Brothel scene (1545-1550), Jan Sanders van Hemessen

Brothel scene (1545-1550), Jan Sanders van Hemessen

Boy with a lute (c. 1625), Frans Hals

Boy with a lute (c. 1625), Frans Hals

A peasant holding a glass (1610 - 1690), Teniers, David the younger

A peasant holding a glass (1610 – 1690), Teniers, David the younger

Peeckelhaeringh (c. 1628-1630), Frans Hals

Peeckelhaeringh (c. 1628-1630), Frans Hals

That’s right: 16th and 17th century Northern European genre paintings (especially of people from lower socio-economic classes) often featured bad teeth! In this particular context, bad teeth seemed to signify poor class, revelry, and debauchery. It’s worth noting that this had the effect of visually distancing the poor from the wealthy, and it’s always a good idea to question why poor hygiene was so visible in these artworks but not in others.

The other subject matter where we see a lot of poor hygiene and bad teeth is, of course, depictions of disease (for more examples of this, read my post on STDs in art history). Agnolo Bronzino’s Venus, Cupid, Folly and Time (1546), for example, depicts an old woman (often called Jealousy) behind the figures in the foreground, whose bad teeth have led many to speculate that she represents the effects of syphilis.

Venus, Cupid, Folly and Time (1546)

Venus, Cupid, Folly and Time (detail) (1546), Agnolo Bronzino

Conclusion

So, we have a lot of really interesting visual evidence of how people in the past took care of their hygiene, and a few examples of poor hygiene in art. When you see poor hygiene in an old artwork, always consider why the poor hygiene was not glossed over and beautified in that particular case.

But, like I said in the intro, this is a really difficult question to answer, and requires digging through a whole lot more artworks from across cultures and time periods. So again, if you’ve seen any artworks showing poor hygiene or hygienic practices, especially from the 17th century, just let me know!

Edited to add:

Reader suggestions

Anti-Saccharrites_colored_etching_by_James_Gillray_(1757_-_1815)

The prints of James Gillray, suggested by Carl

(pictured: Anti-Saccharrites (1792). The print caricatures George III of England and his wife Charlotte drinking tea without sugar and urging their daughters to do the same. The print ridicules their boycott of sugar, urged by opponents of the slave trade in 1791.)

James Gillray, active in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, was a British caricaturist famous for his social satires. Being a caricaturist, when he drew people as uncouth or with noticeably bad teeth it was obviously intended to cast them in a negative light. This again shows how important it was to portray yourself as clean and put together at the time, even though hygiene might have been lacking by today’s standards.

Young_Sick_Bacchus-Caravaggio_(1593) (1)

Bacchino Malato (c. 1593), Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, suggested by Carol

Italian painter Caravaggio’s famous self-portrait was created while he was ill for six months and doesn’t shy away from representing the poor state of his body. His yellow-ish skin shows signs of jaundice. Carol, who suggested this painting, points out that his dirty fingernails and discoloured teeth (although not front and center) could have been common to the time and due to poor hygiene rather than just disease.

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2 Comments

  1. Carol Ann Salerno Wilcox

    Caravaggio’s “Bacchino Malato” depicts the artist as a kind of depraved, sickly, God with visably dirty fingernails and symbolically rotting fruit. I can’t help but wonder how much of the image was a construct and how much was an expression of C.’s life at that point. His discolored teeth and skin may reflect his illness, but I suspect they may also be common to many of his peers.

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