Charles-Henri Sanson was the fourth in a six-generation family line of French public executioners whose dynasty extended from 1688 to 1847. All prided themselves on their hardened professionalism; Charles-Henri alone presided over roughly 3,000 executions in his 40-year career. These included those that he carried out in his role as executioner of Louis XVI, and a long list of celebrated victims guillotined during the Great Terror – a period of violence that spanned 1793–94 following the start of the French Revolution. Yet, as he looked back on his long career in his memoirs, he confessed that – despite his vast experience – the thing that stuck most in his mind was the smile that bedecked the faces of some of his victims during the Reign of Terror.


Sanson was at home with the fear, dread and hysterical behaviour exhibited by most of his victims. Many broke down completely under the strain of the ghoulish open-air guillotine drama in which they played a lead role. Sanson noted, for instance, that the teeth of Madame du Barry, the final mistress of Louis XV, chattered in fright. Wildly imploring bystanders to rescue her, she “cried as I have never seen anyone cry”.

Yet this kind of frenzied behaviour wasn’t monopolised by elite women. The ultra-radical leftwing journalist Jacques René Hébert was cowardly in the extreme when his turn for the guillotine came: he “sobbed, and sweat fell in great drops from his brow”. Similarly the radical journalist and politician Camille Desmoulins struggled hysterically with his executioners while tears “rained from his eyes”.

Grin and bear it

Sanson took such reactions as par for the course. What disconcerted him far more was the number of individuals who showed calm self-possession in the face of imminent death. During his frequent visits to France’s jails, he found that many prisoners, thinking that they might be next for the scaffold, “smiled at me; and these smiles had a singular effect on me. I could become accustomed to the horror that my presence occasioned, but it was altogether more difficult to take to the guillotine individuals ready to thank me for doing so”.

Sanson was particularly impressed by the merchant who – after quaffing a glass of white wine and a dish of oysters – “went off to the guillotine as others would go to their wedding”. The executioner also movingly depicted the stoical behaviour of Lamoignon de Malesherbes, one of a group of high magistrates sent collectively to the guillotine. The statesman went to his death “with the smiling steadfastness of a sage and the calm that comes from a conscience at ease with itself”.

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The magistrates as a group were equally controlled: “There were no tears, no moans, no reproaches, no useless gestures,” Sanson recalled. “They died with the serene pride of the Romans who waited on their seats for the Gauls.” Indeed, many of the men who met their fate so stoically modelled themselves on the heroes of Greek and Roman antiquity.

The striking conduct of these men was more than matched by the conduct of the politically prominent women who shared their fate. Manon Phlipon – a supporter of the French Revolution better known as Madame Roland – headed to the guillotine accompanied by Sanson and his crew in November 1793 with a sublime smile on her face. The butt of blood-curdling verbal assaults on her way to the scaffold, she “listened with a disdainful smile”. Her final words – “Oh liberty! What crimes are committed in thy name!” – were uttered with what Sanson recorded as “a bitter smile”.

Similarly, Lucile Desmoulins, in sharp contrast to her husband, the aforementioned Camille, was calm and radiant with smiles as she faced her end. Louis XVI’s sister Madame Elisabeth, meanwhile, displayed her “always sweet smile” throughout the duration of her trial and the procedures that led, inevitably, to her execution.

By this point in European history, smiles that revealed the teeth had finally emerged as an expression that people were happy to display – a greater innovation in western culture than we might now imagine.

In the ‘Old Regime of Teeth’ under which most of Europe suffered prior to the late 18th century, people invariably lost their teeth in their 40s – or even earlier. Indeed, the situation only got worse as sugar increasingly entered the popular diet.

Ideas of courtly politeness since the Renaissance, meanwhile, had stressed the need to compress the lips – as Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa so neatly demonstrates. The display of teeth had always seemed, if not shockingly plebeian, then at least to indicate a loss of rational control over one’s feelings.

Yet change was in the air. The emergence of dentistry in Paris in the 1750s promised a new destiny for teeth and smiles. The crude tooth-pullers of yore, with their gung-ho penchant for extraction, were increasingly replaced by dental surgeons. These professionals prided themselves on their scientific credentials and offered to provide the preservation and hygienic beautification of teeth. The amiable sociability of the city’s public sphere – with its promenades, parks, cafes, theatres, and other entertainment venues – provided an excellent context for smiling behaviour among the Parisian elite.

This genteel smile was an influence on the women, including Madame Roland, who met their end at the revolutionary guillotine. Yet these individuals also found particular inspiration in a perhaps unlikely source: the smile that they had encountered in Enlightenment novels of sensibility. The 18th-century writer Samuel Richardson’s Pamela: Or, Virtue Rewarded (1740) and Clarissa: Or the History of a Young Lady (1748), and influential social philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s 1761 Julie ou la Nouvelle Héloise, were the French Enlightenment’s most popular and widely loved novels. All are often thought of today largely in terms of the cascades of tears shed by their characters. Yet, in fact, the smiles that they featured also played a crucial role.

Whereas smiles in the French royal court were invariably ironic, disdainful and designed to mask feelings, the innocent and sincere smile worn by the fictional heroines of these novels of everyday life radiated inner virtue. The climactic deathbed scene of Rousseau’s Julie, which triggered almost hysterical passions in readers, was marked by “smiles on the mouth and tears in the eyes”. The literature of sensibility had thus helped to spark a new kind of smile in female readers who were anxious to emulate the virtues of their heroines.

It wasn’t just from literature that these new smiles emerged, either. A further example was dazzlingly displayed in the 1787 self-portrait of the artist Madame Vigée Le Brun, a zealous follower of the heroines of Richardson and Rousseau. The painting, which almost resembles an advertisement for what Parisian dentistry could achieve, showed how the smile of sensibility was passing from the pages of a novel into everyday life. This new smile – available to all – seemed an appropriately democratic gesture for an enlightened society committed to notions of human progress.

Portrait of the Artist with Her Daughter by Elisabeth Louise Vigee-LeBrun (Getty Images)
A self-portrait by 18th-century artist Elisabeth Louise Vigee-LeBrun. (Getty Images)

A thrilling pathway

Of Sanson’s victims, Madame Roland was one who had definitely had her ‘Nouvelle Héloise moment’– in other words, she had read, and strongly identified with, Rousseau’s book. “Even were it to drive me mad,” she later recalled, “I would want no other book.” It offered, as she put it, “the sustenance that was mine alone, and the interpreter of feelings that I had before I read him, but that he alone was able to explain to me”. Rousseau’s fictional Julie pointed out to her a thrilling pathway to living life to the full.

It also showed her how to die. For someone who had sought to live her private life in imitation of Rousseau’s Nouvelle Héloise, what could be more apt for her final moments than the phrase that Rousseau had used to describe Julie’s climactic deathbed scene: “Smiles on the mouth, and tears in the eyes.”

The smile of the female victims of the Terror was thus a poignant tribute to the influence of the novels of sensibility. This cohort of women, their lives on the line, allowed the guillotine moment to be the scene of the expression of both virtue of character and authenticity of identity. They deployed their smiles in the way that Richardson and Rousseau had taught them, with a stoical twist. As the French politician Jacques Claude, Comte de Beugnot noted, such women “treated misfortune like a naughty child at whom one could only laugh; and so they laughed very openly… They seemed to say to all this bloody group of crawlers: you can kill us when you want, but you will never stop us being loveable.”

Strangely, the smile – which in the Enlightenment had been a broadly democratic gesture – had become a symbol of resistance to official revolutionary culture under the Terror. It was now a shared emblem among those who experienced political victimhood, a hidden sign by which the powerless could symbolically cock a snook at the powerful.

In France, at least, it was to be a long time before the smile would recover the generous and expansive symbolic value that it had immediately before the onset of the Terror. In the Gothic, Romantic and, later, realist prisms, these ‘smiles of sensibility’ soon looked as old-fashioned as the novels that had inspired them. Gravitas and high seriousness were the hallmarks of French public life for most of the 19th and 20th centuries, and the smile disappeared from the menu of approved public gestures. Of course, as we have learned, dentistry also had an important role to play: the collapse of the profession in Paris in the aftermath of the revolution certainly had an influence too.

So what of the smile’s popularity in society today? When the gesture recovered its full symbolic value in western culture, from the mid-20th century onwards, its prime location would not be France but the United States. But the 20th century’s very different ‘smile revolution’ is another story altogether.

Colin Jones is professor of history at Queen Mary University of London


This article was first published in the October 2014 issue of BBC History Magazine