Home Awesome Can We See Evidence of Poor Hygiene in Art History?

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 pouting and pointing at each other( 1773 ), engraving by T. Sandars after J. Collier. Courtesy of Wellcome Collection.

Reader question: “How can you ensure on people in for example the 17 th 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 paints where the artist doesn’t try to build the subject seem’ 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 at-bat that my answer will definitely not be able to encompass all of 17 th 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 the issue is sick, and definitely yes.

Now, let’s run a bit deeper, starting with what we know about overall hygiene in the 17 th 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 are thus genuinely 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 15 th and 17 th centuries in Japan, for example, bathing became a major social and cultural institution, and is not merely 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 insure plenty of depictions in Japanese art history of people( usually females) bathing, often in bathhouses.

Onna yu (

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 utilizing warm water. In 17 th century France, for example, it was likely widely believed that bathing in warm water opened people’s pores up and induced them more susceptible to disease.( There seems to have been no sentiments 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.


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

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

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

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

Historian Dr. Louise Hill Curth devotes an excellent introduction to how British people in the 17 th century viewed preventative medicine in her text Lessons from the past: preventive medicine in early modern England. She writes that, together with things like diet and exert, it was also widely believed that good health was related 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 medication and health. For people in the 17 th century, removing witticisms was part of their hygienic routines. Sweating, vomiting, sneezing, gargling, and, of course, bloodletting were all ways of removing humors. While we can’t watch 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 17 th century Dutch painter Jacob Toorenvliet, for example, we see a doctor binding a woman’s arm right after a bloodletting procedure 😛 TAGEND A_surgeon_binding_up_a_woman's_arm_after_bloodletting._Oil_p_Wellcome_L0016891

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

Dental care 800px-Johann_Liss_002a

Farmer at the dentist( c. 1616-17 ), Johann Liss

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

Good teeth were valued even back in the 16 th and 17 th 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 composed of representatives from vinegar, or scratching herbs or even tobacco ashes onto the teeth utilizing cloth. This artwork from the 18 th century actually proves teeth being extracted from poor infants to generate dentures for the upper class – it’s satirical( although teeth transplants were apparently popular for a short time ), but reflects increasing importance placed on having nice teeth 😛 TAGEND 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 generate 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 truly know, but it’s definitely rare to see teeth in older paints; 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 theorized that smiling or demonstrating teeth for a long time is more difficult when having to hold a pose for a portrait, or that demonstrating your teeth was a breach of etiquette at the time. Visible teeth could also have typified vulnerability, carnality, or even transience and death.

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

Well, hygiene standards differed 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 16 th- 17 th century artworks presenting people with bad teeth I’ve found below, and see if you are able to place a topic 😛 TAGEND Brothel scene (1545-1550), Jan Sanders van Hemessen

Brothel scene( 1545 -1 550 ), 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 -1 630 ), Frans Hals

That’s right: 16 th and 17 th 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 notion to question why poor hygiene was so visible in these artworks but not in others.

The other subject matter where we find a lot of poor hygiene and bad teeth is, of course, depictions of cancer( for more examples of this, read my post on STDs in art history ). Agnolo Bronzino’s Venus, Cupid, Folly and Time( 1546 ), for example, illustrates an old woman( often called Jealousy) behind the above 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


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 insure 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 involves digging through a whole lot more artworks from across cultures and time periods. So again, if you’ve insured any artworks demonstrating poor hygiene or hygienic practises, especially from the 17 th century, simply let me know!

Edited to add 😛 TAGEND Reader suggestions


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 exhorting their daughters to do the same. The print ridicules their boycott of sugar, advised by adversaries of the slave trade in 1791.)

James Gillray, active in the late 18 th and early 19 th centuries, was a British caricaturist famous for his social satires. Being a caricaturist, when he described people as uncouth or with perceptibly bad teeth it was obviously intended to cast them in a negative sunlight. 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 scalp shows signs of jaundice. Carol, who indicated 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 merely disease.

The post Can We Find Evidence of Poor Hygiene in Art History ? seemed first on How To Talk About Art History.

Read more: howtotalkaboutarthistory.com


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here